You’ve probably heard that the U.S. workforce is aging. In fact, you’ve probably witnessed it firsthand — and now you’re faced with the challenge of creating a safe and productive work environment that accommodates an aging workforce.
You might have also read these statistics on the web or heard them in the boardroom:
- In 2008, there were 28 million workers over age 55. By 2016, that number is expected to be almost 40 million, an increase of 43%.
- Starting in January of 2011, 10,000 people are turning 65 every single day and this will continue through 2030!
- By 2020, an estimated 25% of the labor force will be 55 and older and almost 17% will be 65 and older.
- 79% of baby boomers say they don’t plan on retiring at age 65.
- The average age of a high-skilled U.S. manufacturing worker today is 56.
These demographic forces represent both challenges and opportunities in industry today. At the very least, the changing demographics of the U.S. workforce deserve careful consideration moving forward. In today’s business environment, it is essential for companies to engage their aging workers in a job that promotes healthy and safe work performance.
Addressing the issue of the aging workforce with workplace ergonomics programs and education & training is becoming more and more necessary. A focus on proactive efforts to accommodate the “chronologically gifted” workforce today will result in a safer, healthier, more productive and more competitive business tomorrow and down the road.
The Value of an Aging Workforce
First, it’s important to recognize the value of older workers. According to the National Technical Asisstance and Research Center:
“By 2020, 25 million Baby Boomers, who make up more than 40 percent of the U.S. labor force, will be exiting the workforce in large numbers and leaving many jobs to be filled. With their departure, the work characteristics that define the Baby Boomer generation — results-driven, ambitious, idealistic, competitive, optimistic, and people-oriented — may be lost unless companies creatively develop strategies to retain older workers (Morton, Foster, & Sedlar, 2005).”
Losing the expertise of these workers could have a drastic and negative impact on your company’s operations. That is why it’s so important to accommodate the aging workforce (who represent some of your best and most productive workers) to ensure their continued safe and productive work performance.
Characteristics of the Aging Workforce
As workers age, their physical, physiological and psychosocial capabilities and limitations change. The more we understand these changes, the better we can accommodate the aging workforce.
In the April 2010 edition of ASSE’s journal, Professional Safety (April 2010), Lance E. Perry provides a detailed summary of the changing characteristics of the aging workforce. These changing characteristics should kept in mind when designing workstations and making workplace improvements to accommodate older workers.
Here is a brief summary:
Physical Changes: As people age, they begin to lose strength, flexibility, balance, sight, reaction time and speed, hearing, manual dexterity and feedback, and body fat.
Physiological Changes: Aging leads to decrease in maximum oxygen intake, rising systemic blood pressure, fatigue and greater susceptibility to extreme temperatures.
Psychosocial Changes: As workers age, they have different shift preferences, training and learning styles and sometimes tend to experience disenfranchisement and disengagement with their work.
These characteristics of the aging workforce puts them at a higher risk of developing a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) and other injuries.
A comprehensive MSD prevention process that identifies and removes MSD risk factors. An essential component to an effective MSD prevention process is ergonomics.
Ergonomics — Designing the Workplace for an Aging Workforce
Ergonomics is the science of designing the workplace, keeping in mind the capabilities and limitations of the worker. The goal is to design jobs and tasks to remove incompatibilities between the work and the worker that hinder safe work performance. This allows you to prevent injuries, illnesses, and mistakes and improve overall worker health and business performance.
In other words, ergonomics is about fitting the work to fit the worker. When considering how to accommodate the aging workforce, it is as important as ever to match job demands to worker capabilities.
Ergonomics and the Aging Workforce
Ergonomically correct design accounts for workers from the 5th percentile female to the 95th percentile male. By designing jobs and tasks with aging workers in mind, you’re making the jobs and tasks safer and more productive for everyone.
Follow these basic ergonomic principles to accommodate the “chronologically gifted” workforce:
- Work in neutral postures. Working with the body in a neutral position reduces stress and strain on your musculoskeletal system.
- Allow for posture changes. Working in the same posture or sitting for prolonged periods of time is bad for you. Your body’s musculoskeletal (or movement) system is designed to move. Arrange workstations and tasks to allow for changing postures.
- Work from the “power zone”. The power zone is also referred to as the “hand shake zone” — this is an easy way to remember the optimal location to perform work.
- Provide good lighting. A common issue with older workers is lighting. Visual acuity deteriorates with age, so make sure work areas are properly lit.
- Have a good grip. Providing “power grips” instead of pinch grips for jobs and tasks is another ergonomics “low hanging fruit” to help accommodate aging workers.
Following these ergonomic principles will significantly reduce ergonomic risk factors that contribute to musculoskeletal injuries and disorders (MSDs). But to remove all risk factors that contribute to these injuries, you’ll need to take a comprehensive approach.
(For a deeper dive into the ergonomic improvement process, see our Workplace Ergonomics 101 tutorial.)
A Comprehensive Approach
If your goal is to prevent musculoskeletal injuries and to promote maximum safe work performance, you need to identify and remove MSD risk factors.
To remove all MSD risk factors, you need a comprehensive process that includes an ergonomics improvement process, education/training and early intervention.
Here is what that looks like:
Education and training programs motivate employees to accept responsibility for adopting healthier work habits and lifestyle choices. The more fit the “industrial athlete” the better the work product produced, and the better the health status of the employee.
Early Intervention focuses on improving employee health through proactive management of MSD signs. When early action is taken to address an employee’s report of fatigue or discomfort, causative risk factors can be identified and principles of prevention can be employed to resolve the employee’s discomfort.
If you’re preparing for an aging workforce (or you already have one), it is as important as ever to be proactive and remember the basics of MSD prevention. The silver tsunami is coming … be prepared!
- The demographics of the U.S. workforce are changing rapidly:10,000 workers turn 65 every day!
- Older workers are valuable workers and represent a large portion of your organization’s knowledge and skill.
- The ergonomics process removes barriers to safe work performance, prevents injuries and improves business performance.
- Designing jobs and tasks for aging workers benefits all!
- A comprehensive approach that includes Ergonomics, Education and Early Intervention is needed to remove all MSD risk factors.
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