Special Safety Concerns for an Aging Workforce

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost a quarter of all 65- to 74-year-olds are active in the workforce, representing the highest percentage of workers in this age group since 1970. As older adults return to work after retirement, whether due to financial need or the desire to continue working, health and safety professionals must address this population's needs.

Gregory Petty, professor of health and safety programs at the University of Tennessee, discussed the aging workforce's special safety concerns at the National Safety Council's (NSC) 2007 Congress and Expo in Chicago. He explained the phenomenon of so many older employees returning to the workforce after retirement can be attributed to better health, insufficient retirement funds or the desire to gain new experiences.

“Though many older people will need to work, at least part time, many others will want to,” Petty said. “[Some] older workers want the potential for new adventures or experiences.”

Petty said that while many business and industry leaders are overlooking the increasingly older workforce, he predicted the expectations of this population's work ability will change “with the realization that ‘old’ does not have to mean tired, sick, cautious or quiet.”

“There are reasons why you should care about the value of these older workers,” Petty said.

He explained the older working population generally is highly educated, experienced and reliable. These employees typically have held established careers, have the wisdom of maturity and often have lower injury rates. Petty acknowledged that the benefits of hiring older employees, however, are accompanied by risks.

“You have a fall when you're 20, you have a bruise,” he said. “You have a fall when you're 50, 60 or 70, you have a broken hip.”

Common on-the-job injuries experienced by the older working population often are caused by falls, which can be attributed to poor balance, slowed reaction time, visual deficits, lack of concentration or complacency. Sprain or strain injuries also are common, and may be brought on by loss of strength, endurance or flexibility. Additionally, older workers may be more sensitive to overexertion, heat, cold, lighting, noise and ergonomic issues.

Employers and health and safety professionals may need to make accommodations for their older workers to keep them safe. Petty suggested wellness programs, job analyses and ergonomic evaluations to protect the aging workforce. He added that restructured job duties and work hours might also be beneficial to this population. Providing behavior-based feedback and giving more positive than negative consequences are also beneficial for the older workforce.

“For employers intent on recapturing talents of older workers, more interesting, varied jobs will make a difference,” Petty said.

He stressed that older workers should be aware of their current functioning ability. Forgetting glasses or hearing aides, for example, could prove dangerous for an older worker. “You have to know your limitations,” he warned.

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