The aging workforce
How will it affect your business?
America’s workforce is changing. Baby boomers, defined as those born between 1946 and 1964, are now reaching the age where retirement is just around the corner. What is the impact of aging on worker health and safety?
While older workers have low absenteeism, turnover, and accident rates, they do take longer to return to work after injuries and illnesses because they are likely to heal more slowly and have pre-existing health problems. Older workers have more severe injuries with longer rates of off-work time than their younger counterparts do.
Aging is natural, and we will all feel the effects to some degree, including loss of strength and muscular flexibility, reduced visual capacity and slowing of our mental processing. Addressing these impacts means looking at the physical, psychosocial, and cognitive issues related to aging. Companies cannot continue to run their businesses as usual.
Loss of strength happens due to decreased muscle mass and diminished force capabilities of our muscles. The muscles take longer to respond to action and fatigue faster as we age. As muscles age, they begin to shrink and lose mass. The number and size of muscle fibers also decrease. Muscles take longer to respond in our 50s than they do in our 20s. Heavy lifting and lowering, awkward positions and static postures are all risk factors for workplace injuries. Tasks requiring grip force and exertion, as well as repetitive tasks, are more difficult with decreased strength and endurance.
Reduced grip strength goes along with reduced muscle and soft tissue capabilities. Handgrip strength decreases, making it more difficult to accomplish routine activities such as gripping, lifting, turning a valve and opening material. We can assist the aging worker by reducing the time spent in these type jobs or providing mechanical assists. Choosing hand tools and handheld devices that are appropriately sized for the human hand can compensate for reduced grip strength.
To prevent injuries to the soft tissue, find the jobs that possess the greatest physical risks to the various soft tissue groups. This process will prioritize the jobs that need to be changed, as well as those that could be used for return-to-work and to keep employees working longer. Some of the ways to help employees include reducing work with static muscle effort (i.e. sustained, fixed postures, increasing the use of mechanized equipment, and reducing or eliminating twisting of the upper torso).
Vision is by far our most important sensory channel. Approximately 90 percent of most of the information we learn in a lifetime enters through the eyes. A 60-year-old person requires two to three times the amount of light as a 20 year old.
Normal age-related changes in vision include impaired ability to adapt to changes in light levels, extreme sensitivity to glare, reduced visual acuity (ability to discern detail) and restricted field of vision and depth perception. Impaired depth perception may cause a person to perceive a shadow on the floor as a step or a hole and visual misinterpretation based on visual misinformation can severely impair an individual’s ability to function safely.
The single largest missing ingredient in workplace facilities to assist aging workers is light and how it is designed for the job task. Well-designed lighting plans are essential. Using more indirect lighting, especially with computer use, creates a better working environment. Using task-specific lighting is also important depending on the job task; this can be by using table and desk lamps with soft, white lights to avoid glare.
Reducing glare contributes to comfort, and helps minimize falls and maximize attention span. Attention to the special needs of task lighting assists workers in seeing the task and increasing levels of performance. Very few managers correlate productivity and efficiency to the correct light levels. High contrast is very effective in enhancing visual function. An edge band of contrasting color on a desk or countertop can help the worker see it more easily. The aging eye is best able to discriminate saturated colors at the warm end of the spectrum. Colors with a high degree of brightness, such as yellow, are particularly visible.
Mental processing and reaction time become slower with age. This slowing of information processing speed actually begins in young adulthood (the late 20s). By the time people are 60 or older, they will generally take longer to perform mental tasks. It is now thought by some experts that older adults do not lose mental competence; it simply takes them longer to process the necessary information. In addition to cognitive decline, slowed processing speed has also been linked to decline in motor function. Therefore, older adults may have less dexterity and co-ordination than when they were younger.
There are training methods that work well for older adults. Older workers’ best methods for learning are through direct, hands-on experience, as they tend to want to use new skills right away. It is important for older workers to be involved in planning and training. Relating new learning to past experiences, accommodating for vision and hearing loss, and establishing an acceptable pace for learning new information are all critical elements to retaining new information.
It is important to understand that the changes in cognition do not necessarily happen to everyone. There is a wide variation among individuals. The degree of decline is small and should not interfere with day-to-day functioning. It may take an older person longer to learn something new, but they can still learn.
Over the next few years, we will see an increase in the older people in the workforce. Surveys indicate that baby boomers want to continue to work either full or part time. To ensure a long and healthy work life, industry must assess the capabilities and limitations of older workers and design tasks within these parameters. This will positively affect productivity, efficiency, and safety among all age groups. Plan to accommodate for your needs and the needs of your employees as the years progress.
The information, examples and suggestions presented in this material have been developed from sources believed to be reliable, but they should not be construed as legal or other professional advice.
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