"Businesses must act now to accommodate and provide a safer work environment for the aging worker, a valuable and experienced group, or their bottom line will be impacted negatively," ASSE President Jack Dobson Jr., CSP, says. "There are easy and economical ways to do this that in the long run will save time, increase output and contribute positively to the business."
As baby boomers born between 1946 and 1964 begin to retire over the next few years, the Department of Labor notes that the work force will shrink, as those born from 1965 to 1985 a time with a declining birthrate enter the work force.
Injury rates for older workers are the lowest of any age group, but their fatality rates are the highest. The Department of Labor's workplace statistics for 2004 show that those 64 and older had the lowest number of workplace injuries, but the fatality rate for those 55 and older rose by 10 percent.
In 2003, workers 65 and older "continued to record the highest fatality rate of any other age group, more than three times the rate of fatalities for those aged 25 to 34," according to the agency. Most of those fatalities were transportation-related, from falls, from being struck by an object and from homicides.
Still, data from 2001-2002 suggests there is no age-related safety performance issue between the 25- to 54-year-old age group and that of the over-55 year-old age group, ASSE member and Colorado resident Alma Jackson, R.N., MS, COHN-S states in her paper titled "Health and Safety in an Aging Workforce."
"Older workers are not more prone to injury and illness than other workers. Older workers have fewer avoidable absences, a lower turnover rate and fewer work-related accidents," Jackson says. "To increase workplace safety, employer fixes environmental changes can cost next to nothing yet the return on investment is very high."
Older Workers Bring Experience, Work Ethic, Special Needs
As the percentage of 55-and-over workers increases, injury rates for the whole work population decreases while productivity increases, ASSE member Joel M. Haight, P.E., CSP, researcher and faculty member at Penn State University, says.
"An estimated 3.9 million occupational injuries and illnesses were treated in hospital emergency departments among all industry and occupation groups for workers aged 15 and older," Haight says. "The highest numbers of these injuries and illnesses occurred among workers aged 25-44."
But while there are benefits of having older workers, with age comes a decline in workers' physical, sensory and even mental functioning, according to ASSE member Bruce Tulgan, founder and president of RainmakerThinking Inc., a New Haven, Conn.-based workplace research firm.
"As we age we get shorter and heavier, our muscle strength decreases and by age 65, the mean maximum aerobic power the level at which oxygen uptake levels off is about 70 percent of what it was at age 25," Tulgan says. "Hearing and vision is also diminished as one ages."
Most experts agree that despite the aging process and its risks, older workers are not likely to take it easy on the job.
"Even though older workers face additional obstacles to performing their job, they bring experience and knowledge and an excellent work ethic to the job making them a valuable part of the work force," Tulgan says. "Equipment, facilities and work processes can be improved to account for the limitations of the aging workforce and to take advantage of their experience and capabilities."
Ways to Make Work Safer for Older Employees
Knowing that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, ASSE members offer these suggestions for accommodating older workers:
- Improve illumination and add color contrast.
- Eliminate heavy lifts, elevated work from ladders and long reaches.
- Design work floors and platforms with smooth and solid decking while still allowing some cushioning.
- Reduce static standing time.
- Remove clutter from control panels and computer screens and use large video displays.
- Reduce noise levels.
- Install chain actuators for valve hand wheels, damper levers or other similar control devices, which brings the control manipulation to ground level and helps reduce falls.
- Install skid-resistant material for flooring and especially for stair treads, which helps reduce falls.
- Install shallow-angle stairways in place of ladders when space permits and where any daily, elevated access is needed to complete a task. This helps reduce falls.
- Utilize hands-free, volume-adjustable telephone equipment.
- Increase task rotation, which will reduce the strain of repetitive motion.
- Lower sound system pitches, such as on alarm systems, as they tend to be easier to hear.
- Lengthen time requirements between steps in a task.
- Increase the time allowed for making decisions.
- Consider necessary reaction time when assigning older workers to tasks.
- Provide opportunities for practice and time to develop task familiarity.
Implementing these changes would not only help older workers, but would benefit all workers.