Keep aging workers safe on the job

What employers can do

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Photo: Oregon Department of Transportation/flickr

The U.S. workforce is aging. According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2020, 24% of workers were 55 or older – up from 19% a decade earlier.

“The aging workforce is something that’s going to be with us for some time,” said Jim Grosch, a research psychologist and co-director of the NIOSH National Center for Productive Aging and Work. Identifying and reducing the risks that many older workers face – especially those who perform hands-on labor – can help employers retain their experience and keep them injury-free.

Risks ‘disproportionately affect aging workers’

“We don’t want to suggest that older workers create the safety hazards, because it’s the job conditions that create the safety hazards,” said Chris Cain, executive director of CPWR – The Center for Construction Research and Training. “But we do see that the risks on the job do sometimes disproportionately affect aging workers.”

The most recent data available from BLS shows that fatal injuries among workers 55 and older increased 8% from 2018 to 2019. The 2,005 deaths in 2019 represent “the largest number recorded for this age group,” the agency says. That figure fell 13.9% to 1,727 in 2020.

In 2020, workers ages 55-64 had a fatal injury rate of 4.4 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers, while those 65 and older had a rate of 8.6, according to BLS. Both of those rates were significantly higher than that for all workers, at 3.4.

CPWR research on nonfatal injuries shows that older workers are more likely to experience pain in the torso, back, shoulders and knees. They also take longer to recover.

Because soft tissue injuries don’t result in an open wound, a worker in pain may not be as readily noticeable to a co-worker or supervisor.

“If they tweak something, sometimes they report it, sometimes they won’t,” said Morris Elkins, director of corporate safety and health at Colorado Springs, CO-based construction engineering company Tepa LLC. “And with some of the physical demands on a construction job, if they’re not able to do the job and they’re not able to work, they don’t get paid.”

Methods of hazard prevention

So, what can employers do to help mitigate hazards facing older workers?

Adapt the physical work environment. Small steps include changing signage so it’s easier to read and increasing illumination/wattage to provide better lighting where needed.

Moving break rooms closer to common work locations; providing cushioned, anti-fatigue mats for workers who stand on the job; and ensuring footwear isn’t worn or weathered also may help.

“Small, inexpensive, fairly simple changes can sometimes add up to be quite something,” Grosch said. Promote individual health. What do workers know about their own health? What are they doing to maintain it? Employers can help bolster awareness of worker health and monitor health metrics over time by providing screenings for blood pressure, cholesterol, diabetes and other common health concerns.

Embrace technology. David Biderman, executive director and CEO of the Solid Waste Association of North America, points to automation to help mitigate various injury risks. In the waste industry, this includes automated side-loader garbage trucks. By removing the need for a worker to ride on the step, the trucks eliminate exposure to hazards outside the truck as well as musculoskeletal concerns related to manual lifting and leaving and reentering the vehicle.

In the construction industry, Elkins said, “We’ve come a long way with smaller forklifts” and similar equipment designed to alleviate strain on workers.

Provide training. As technology and other factors – including the COVID-19 pandemic – change the way work is done, employers need to make sure workers’ skills and knowledge are maintained or enhanced.

“I believe in safety in general,” Biderman said, “and in the solid waste industry in particular, it’s impossible to overcommunicate about safety. We encourage companies and agencies to repeat safety messages over and over again to help the recipient of that message – the frontline employee or the supervisor – internalize that safety message and then change their unsafe behavior in response to that.”

Careful communication

Although adjusting work responsibilities or redesigning job tasks to more evenly distribute physical demands can have a positive effect on older workers’ health, the effort may be met with reluctance by the workers themselves.

A 2012 study conducted by CPWR concluded that older construction workers may be hesitant to shift to less physically demanding work because, in part, of the risk of reduced income or decreased access to health and pension benefits.

For supervisors who want to talk with older workers about making changes to the job, Elkins recommends choosing your words wisely and with care.

For example, if a worker is beginning to pivot away from more regular manual labor, consider presenting the situation as taking on an “apprentice” who will learn and benefit from the worker’s expertise.

Elkins cautions that, “You have to really watch the way you approach that, because you will offend them and they’ll even get hurt and won’t talk about it. ‘I don’t need a helper. I’ve been doing this for 20 years,’ and now a young kid shows up.

“So you tell them, ‘Look, he’s not a helper, he’s an apprentice. You’re here to train him.’”

In Cain’s experience, the institutional knowledge older workers have may open new, safety-related doors to them.

“We rely on peer training a lot in the building trades to train workers on skills and in safety and health,” Cain said, “and we’ve learned that is a potential career path for older workers to get involved in training and safety, and even site safety activities. Once you get a large career and a lot of experience behind you, you may have an opportunity to continue to rely on that breadth of experience.”

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