Gray Matters

Maintaining the safety and health of older workers

  • Bureau of Labor Statistics projections through 2018 show the population of workers 55 and older continuing to grow.
  • Older workers generally sustain fewer injuries, but their injuries tend to be more severe.
  • Employers should consider both environmental changes and wellness activities to accommodate the safety and health of older workers.

By Ashley Johnson, associate editor
As safety and training coordinator for the city of Lincoln, NE, Robert Nemecek oversees a variety of occupations, from fire and police to parks and street crews. Many of these industries share one attribute – an aging workforce.

With the economy, I think our workforce is getting older, they’re working longer," Nemecek said. "What compounds that is that their health is not as good. Their physical condition, their well-being is not as good as it once was."

As a result, they take longer to recover from injuries and return to work. "And, of course, that's an increase in our workers' comp costs, so I think we’re paying a price for our older workers," Nemecek added.

The city of Lincoln is not alone. With more baby boomers delaying retirement, employers across the country must address the safety and health issues associated with the physical changes that come with age.

Aging America

Americans are living longer, and changes in Social Security benefits, declining retirement savings and rising health care costs have compelled many people to continue working. Data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics indicates this trend will continue: BLS projections show labor force participation among adults 55 and older increasing 43 percent by 2018, bringing their share of the workforce to almost 25 percent. The agency predicts the biggest increase among workers 65 to 74 years old, whose employment level may jump more than 80 percent.

Age discrimination

Maria Enriquez, subrogation technician for the state of Michigan Medicaid program, believes she can perform her job as well as any young person ....

A 2007 survey from Washington-based AARP supports the data. Nearly 70 percent of the 1,500 adults 45 to 74 years old interviewed said they planned to work into their retirement years. Twenty-seven percent cited finances as a top reason, with health care coverage being a related reason. A large number of respondents also said they enjoyed working.

The increase in older workers reflects a larger trend in America: a rapidly aging population. The demographic shift prompted the National Transportation Safety Board to host its first forum on older drivers last year. The United States has more than 30 million licensed drivers 65 and older. NTSB expects that age group to represent more than 20 percent of the driving population in 15 years. Factors that influence the safety of older drivers – including increased fragility and diminished flexibility, reaction times, and vision – also matter in the workplace.
Taking a toll

Research shows older workers sustain fewer injuries than their younger counterparts, but tend to incur more severe injuries, which may take longer to heal. Many older workers also suffer from chronic conditions such as heart disease, diabetes and arthritis.  

As longtime Amtrak employee John Gelner put it, "It just seems like stuff catches up in your system over the years and you don’t realize it. I guess that’s the cost of getting old." For him, that price includes sleep apnea, allergies and a heart attack in December 2007.

"It takes its toll on you," Gelner continued. "Your response times are slower than what they used to be."

Timothy Healey, director of safety at the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Co. in Hartford, CT, uses his age as a reference point during safety training. Healey works with engineers who inspect boilers and pressure vessels at industrial and commercial facilities. He estimated between one-third and one-half of them are 50 or older.

"What we find as we deal with an aging workforce is, on one hand, you have all of that wonderful experience from hands-on work, from being in and around machinery and mechanical operations," he said. On the other, "The aging process, in so much as dealing with personal strength, flexibility, visual acuity, endurance … is poised to create some concerns for us as our inspection field force goes about its business."

Healey encourages employees to take pragmatic steps to ensure the quality of their inspections. "Those that are 50 and above certainly recognize that they’re not 25 anymore and they make the obvious shift," he said.

Environmental changes

Older workers are particularly vulnerable to musculoskeletal injuries. Alma Jackson, assistant professor of nursing at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO, said photographs of spines at ages 20, 50 and 70 show obvious degeneration with age. "There’s just not the elastic properties to be able to move like you did in your 20s," she said.

Employers can accommodate for common physical changes. Falls are the leading cause of injury death and nonfatal injury for adults 65 and older, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Jackson recommended installing anti-slip stair-nosing on at least the first and last steps because that is where falls are most likely to occur.

Jackson also recommended providing more lighting – 60-year-olds need 2 to 3 times more light than they did when they were 20 to see the same thing. "It doesn’t take that much to adjust the environment for the older worker," Jackson said.

Just look at Bellows Falls, VT-based Sonnax Industries Inc., manufacturer and distributor of replacement automotive parts. According to Lynn E. Barnes, safety, environmental and health manager at Sonnax, the employee median age went from 30 to 40-45. "That 15 years," she noted, "is a big difference [in terms of] strength, agility, balance and being able to work longer hours."

Barnes said evaluating workstations for better productivity led to ergonomic improvements. Supplies now are located directly in the work area so employees do not have to stretch to reach them, and heavier items are positioned so they are easier to pick up.   

Employees also shift among different jobs to reduce the potential for repetitive motion injuries. "The hours remain the same, but people are encouraged through training to take short breaks, to stretch and to refresh themselves," she said.

Barnes looks out for employees who fear losing their job because of their age. "I don’t want someone not reporting something because they're afraid they won’t be in that position anymore," she said.

Julie Koch at Clorox Co. of Canada Ltd. also is mindful of aging workers. Koch, safety coordinator at Clorox’s Orangeville Plant in Ontario, described efforts to eliminate the physical stress on operators. To make garbage bags, operators used to cut back large rolls of film with a utility knife; they now use hand-powered saws, which easily slice the material.

However, scheduling still presents a challenge. Plant employees work 12-hour shifts up to three days in a row. "Just as you're getting to the point where your body is starting to get back to normal and you’re starting to feel good, it's time to go back to work again," Koch said.

Night shifts especially are hard on some older workers. As a solution, Clorox allows employees to trade shifts with each other.

Promoting wellness

Just as employers should adjust the workplace, older employees have a responsibility to adjust their lifestyle. "As an employer, you can only do so much for them at work," Nemecek said.

He encourages employees to take personal accountability for their health. The city of Lincoln offers wellness activities, although Nemecek acknowledged many operations run around the clock, leaving little time for employees to participate.  

"They're on the jobs and … really can't take an hour out of the day to stop what they're doing and maybe work out or do some education, so we're trying to hit those as best we can with some on-the-job activities," he said. "We're also just trying to educate with nutrition and exercise, stretching, and the importance of that."

Barry VanSickle, equipment operator at the Wharf Resources Inc. gold mine in Lead, SD, encounters a different challenge when he talks to older employees about lifestyle changes. "Some of them smoked all their lives, and you can't tell them that smoking is bad for them," VanSickle said. "Stubborn is what I'm trying to get after. They're a little less apt to maybe go to the doctor for something."

Wharf's owner, Vancouver, British Columbia-based Goldcorp Inc. recently began a voluntary wellness program. VanSickle said employees can receive free health care for being healthy – exhibited by losing weight, quitting smoking, and keeping cholesterol and blood pressure levels in a healthy range. The incentive "has opened a lot of people's eyes," he said.

Learning curve

Older workers may take longer to pick up new material, but Jackson stressed they are just as capable of learning as anyone else. "They have a high work ethic," she said. "There's a myth that they don't want to learn, and that's not true."

Regarding training, she advised relying on facts they already know and building from there. When Jackson asks older adults to memorize a random list of letters, many struggle with the task. But remembering becomes much easier for them if she changes the order of the letters to spell out JFK, LBJ or FBI because the brain recognizes and retains patterns.

Many employers appreciate the experience older adults bring. As Healey said, a 60-year-old may take longer than a 30-year-old to climb scaffolding or complete an inspection, but the more experienced employee can better anticipate hazards.

Clorox has begun bringing retirees back part-time to troubleshoot problems and train new employees. "I think everybody realizes that someone who has done a job for 25 or 30 years knows things that are valuable," Koch said.

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