As those born between 1946 and 1964, the large ‘baby boomer’ generation, ages so to does our workforce while the labor pool shrinks. Currently, workplace injury rates for older workers are the lowest of any age group, but their fatality rate is the highest. To accommodate the aging workforce and to work to reduce fatality rates, businesses should design a safe workplace for this aging, but valuable, workforce, American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) note, or be faced with a negative economic impact.
“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 H. Dobson, Jr., CSP, said today. “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.”
The U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) 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 25-34,’ according to the DOL. Most of these fatalities were transportation-related, from falls, from being struck by an object and from homicides.
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As baby boomers begin to retire over the next few years, the DOL notes the workforce will shrink as those born from 1965 to 1985, a time with a declining birthrate, enter the workforce. According to American Demographics magazine, currently there are 76.9 million baby boomers in the U.S. The majority of boomers live in California, Florida, Illinois, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Texas.
“As the percentage of the workforce aged 55 and over increases, injury rates for the whole work population decreases while productivity increases,” ASSE member Dr. Joel M. Haight, P.E., CSP, researcher and faculty member at Penn State University, said. “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. The highest numbers of these injuries and illnesses occurred among workers aged 25-44.
“Data suggests there is no age-related safety performance issue between the 25-54 year age group and that of the over 55 years age group, according to 2001-02 statistics,” 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.
“To increase workplace safety, employer fixes – environmental changes – can cost next to nothing yet the return on investment is very high,” said Jackson.
In the Society for Human Resource Management’s (SHRM) 2004-05 workplace forecast the top demographic trends identified are: 1) the aging workforce; 2) eldercare; 3) having both childcare and eldercare responsibilities; 4) changing family patterns; and, 5) an increase in the unskilled workforce.
“Management needs to be prepared to accommodate the number of changes older workers may face such as physical, sensory and perhaps some mental impediments,” according to ASSE member Bruce Tulgan, Founder and President of RainmakerThinking Inc., a New Haven, CN-based workplace research firm. “As we age we get shorter and heavier, he said, 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. 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 said. “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.”
Knowing that there is no one-size-fits-all solution, the following are suggestions from ASSE members that can increase workplace safety for an aging workforce:
- Improve illumination, 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 – this brings the control manipulation to ground level – helps reduce falls
- Install skid resistant material for flooring and especially for stair treads – 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 – 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.
ASSE resources on this issue include ASSE’s Professional Safety Journal December 2003 article titled ‘Human Error & the Challenges of an Aging Workforce’ by Dr. Haight, his ASSE 2005 Professional Development Conference (PDC) presentation titled ‘Designing for an Aging Workforce’ and Alma Jackson’s PDC presentation titled ‘Effective Safety Training for an Aging Workforce’, all available for downloading at www.asse.org/newsroom under news releases.