Across virtually every sector of the economic landscape, the workforce is getting older. Individuals are living longer, thanks to advances in healthcare and other factors, and concurrently, they’re staying on the job longer. A variety of factors – including economic pressures and other personal reasons – have compelled workers to remain at work or find new jobs after retiring. Indeed, the percentage of workers aged between 55 and 65 increased by more than 50 percent over the last five years, spurred by the aging of the Baby Boomer generation, of which 10,000 individuals hit 65 years old every day. The reasons for this shift are myriad – between a global retirement savings deficit rising toward $400 trillion and an average cost of living that continues to rise in all markets around the United States, the financial causes alone are enough to shock the system. Add that to the host of personal reasons why a worker might choose to keep working or return to the workforce, and you have a population that will not only constitute a major portion of the job field, but will also require specific adjustments in order to flourish.
Older workers’ bodies are different from those of their younger counterparts, and the daily stresses of the job affect them in appropriately disparate ways. Most job tasks are not designed with the older worker in mind, and therefore can introduce overexertion and poor mechanics that commonly lead to injury. Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), conditions that are prevalent among every age group, present an even greater risk for long-tenured workers, who experience MSDs at a higher rate than any other age group. Alarmingly, however, companies across the nation have responded slowly to the aging workforce and its unique demands. Only 35% of companies have analyzed how an older workforce will impact operations in the short-term, and even fewer have considered the effects over the course of a decade or more. Worse, age discrimination persists, with 41% of companies admitting in a recent survey that they believe an older workforce is a competitive disadvantage.
However, some companies have worked proactively to make adjustments for their long-tenured workers.
Mercedes-Benz, the luxury automotive manufacturer based in Berlin, recently implemented a strategy for maximizing the potential of their aging workforce while reducing the risk of injury. They began by focusing on the culture of the workplace, working to shift attitudes about the roles of older workers. The company began integrating ergonomic tools into their operations, and provided additional flexibility for older workers to switch or shift their schedules. Rival BMW installed wooden floors to help ease the impact and stress on older workers’ joints.
A manufacturer in Alabama also recently deployed a risk-avoidance strategy around their long-tenured workers. Facing a poorly ranked safety record and a workforce whose average age was 47, the company instituted mandatory stretching periods before the start of each shift along with expounded safety education programs. The stretching periods were used as open forums for workers to report hazards, near misses, and suggestions for safety improvements. The program immediately proved effective, dramatically reducing MSDs and other injuries.
Tips for Managing the Health and Safety of Older Workers
1) Implement ergonomics.
As shown in the example at Mercedes-Benz, ergonomics can be a powerful tool for alleviating the risk of injuries at work. A full ergonomic review can isolate potentially hazardous tools, workspaces, and work practices and identify specific opportunities for positive change. Encourage employees to take advantage of ergonomically designed equipment such as standing desks, and demonstrate the importance of posture to your workers. Even small factors like good lighting and solid grips on tools can help older workers accomplish their tasks without risk of injury.
2) Make education a priority.
There’s a stereotype about old dogs and new tricks, but that’s all it is: a stereotype. Long-tenured workers may have some resistance to changing behaviors and processes, even for the sake of their health, but when presented as part of a serious care plan to address their specific needs, data shows they will respond. Training should include information on and demonstrations of proper stretching technique, healthy body mechanics, and best practices for accomplishing strenuous tasks.
3) Understand the characteristics of the older worker.
As people age, their bodies change in ways that affect the way they do their jobs. This seems obvious, but you cannot design a safe workplace for older workers without understanding their bodies. Age contributes to reduced physical strength and diminished senses, both of which impact critical work traits such as reaction time and manual dexterity. Older workers are also more likely to become fatigued, which itself increases the risk of MSDs and other injuries. Factors like rising blood pressure and decreased oxygen intake can also contribute to risk for older workers.
4) Use technology to your advantage.
Recent advances in workplace safety technology provide a new weapon against rising injuries and costs with an aging workforce. Telemedicine is a valuable resource for older workers, whose means of transportation may be limited but who are more likely to need frequent visits with medical providers. Likewise, developments in artificial intelligence have opened doors to real-time safety management. For instance, many companies have integrated AI-equipped camera systems to monitor their workers and alert management to hazards for immediate intervention.
5) Make safety a visible, tangible part of the work environment.
Education is essential, but what are you doing after the training phase to facilitate a safe workplace? Taking healthcare to the worker can bridge the gap between management and employees, an especially valuable asset when dealing with older workers who require access to care. In-person pain therapy sessions can be very beneficial to long-tenured workers, helping to alleviate discomfort without the need to leave work for a medical appointment. Likewise, on-site monitoring can help engage older workers and teach them valuable safety skills, encouraging them to take ownership of their health with the support of your organization.
Though it’s true that older workers tend to suffer more severe injuries than their younger colleagues, creating a safe environment for aged workers is not only possible – it’s in the best interest of your company. Older workers bring unique experience and skills to the table, and engaging with them directly about their safety will let them know that you value their contributions to the workplace. That connection can help you foster an empowering, healthy workplace where workers of all ages can thrive.