Personnel Safety, Special Topics in Safety Management

The Workforce Is Aging—We Need to Keep It Healthy and Safe

The number of older people in the population—and with it, the proportion of older to younger workers—has grown in the past 5 decades and is projected to continue to grow. People are living longer. They either need or want to continue working at an older age for reasons ranging from inadequate retirement savings or a need for continued health insurance benefits to job satisfaction and the social contact and stimulation of being in the workplace.

Safety culture positive team

Dima Sidelnikov / Shutterstock.com

While the labor participation rate for workers aged 65 to 74 is projected to remain significantly lower than those of prime working age, it is expected to increase in the next decade. One in four American workers will be over the age of 55 by 2020, according to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).

Employment of workers aged 65 or older has grown by 117% in a span of 20 years, according to the BLS, and employment of individuals 75 years or older has increased by the same rate.

The frequency of occupational injuries overall decreases with advancing age, but the injuries that do occur are more likely to be fatal for older workers. Between the ages of 25 and 34, the rate of nonfatal injuries decreases while the rate of fatal injuries increases. The frequency of fatal injuries jumps most dramatically around age 60.

The BLS has called attention to the correlation between worker age and both the number and rate of fatal workplace injuries. Only seven 16- to 17-year-old workers died in 2017, the most recent year for which the BLS has compiled data. That translates to a rate of 0.8 per 100,000 workers. While workers aged 55 to 64 years accounted for the highest number of fatal injuries—1,155—at a rate of 4.6, the highest fatal injury rate in 2017 was 10.3 for workers aged 65 years and over. They accounted for 775 (or 15%) of all workplace deaths in 2017—an all-time high in the BLS’s Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries.

The Value of Older Workers

Despite the risks of serious injury or fatality among older workers, employers can yield certain benefits from an aging workforce, including:

  • Low absenteeism and turnover,
  • A strong work ethic among older workers,
  • Maintenance or improvement in overall productivity of the workforce,
  • Retention of experienced workers, and
  • The transfer of expertise among generations in a multigenerational workforce.

Perhaps the most sobering fact is that employers need to retain older workers. Given the differences in the population size of the Baby Boomer and subsequent generations, there simply are not enough younger workers to replace older workers currently in the workforce. A so-called “silver tsunami” of retirements and lower workforce participation could result in labor shortages. Employers must adapt to avoid suffering productivity losses.

Older Workers’ Safety, Health

Older workers generally are safer workers. They are less likely to engage in risky behaviors than their younger counterparts. They also have years of accumulated job knowledge and work experience that translate into an understanding of workplace hazards and common hazard controls.

Older workers are injured less frequently. However, when injuries or illnesses do occur on the job, they can be more severe. Normal age-related changes can result in diminished physical, sensory, or cognitive capabilities.

Chronic illnesses in older workers–asthma, depression, and diabetes–can also be complicating factors, affecting the severity of workplace injuries or illnesses. Managing an aging workforce requires both an appreciation of the changes that occur with age and employing proven methods to reduce the injury risk that can result.

For example, the effects of a musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) or musculoskeletal injury (MSI) on older workers may be more extreme than on younger workers. In fact, Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) data indicate the percentage of MSIs and number of days away from work per injury increase when workers are over the age of 30.

Protecting older workers’ safety and health requires matching job demands to worker capabilities. Reducing or eliminating risk factors such as awkward or static postures, heavy lifting, repetitive movements, and vibration can prevent MSDs for older and younger workers alike.

Older driver

RgStudio / E+ / Getty Images

Age can also be a factor in transportation incidents. While the rate of involvement in fatal crashes decreases with age in the general population, death rates for work-related roadway crashes increase steadily beginning around age 55.

Changes due to normal aging can affect an older person’s ability to drive. Changes may include diminished vision, including reduced night vision and intolerance of glare; slower reaction times; declines in cognitive functioning; and decreasing muscle strength and range of motion.

NIOSH Research, Resources

In 2015, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) launched the National Center for Productive Aging and Work (NCPAW) to promote the lifelong well-being of older workers and promote the concept of productive aging.

The concept of productive aging entails:

  • Providing a safe and healthy work environment for workers of all ages;
  • Creating working conditions that allow workers to function optimally and thrive on any job until the last day before full retirement; and
  • Enabling employers to benefit from the retention of institutional knowledge and the extensive skills of long-term, older workers.

The NCPAW is a part of NIOSH’s Total Worker Health centers, programs, and research projects. Total Worker Health combines worker health promotion with occupational safety and health protection.

The NCPAW’s approach to productive aging involves:

  • A life-span perspective that considers the patterns of change and transition that occur, including in biological/physical, cognitive, and social areas. This perspective views the aging process as dynamic, adaptive, and influenced by the environment.
  • A comprehensive and integrated framework, as a part of the overall Total Worker Health framework, for improving worker safety, health, and well-being by utilizing a range of education and intervention strategies. These strategies draw from a growing knowledge base of factors affecting older workers, such as chronic disease management, ergonomics, healthy lifestyles, injury prevention, and workplace flexibility.
  • Outcomes that recognize the priorities of both workers and employers include worker-centered outcomes such as improving safety and well-being and employer-centered outcomes like reducing healthcare costs and maintaining job performance.
  • A supportive work culture for a multigenerational workforce consisting of four or five generations (World War II Generation, 1925–1945; Baby Boomer Generation, 1946–1964; Generation X, 1965–1980; Millennial Generation (Generation Y), 1981–2001; and the Post-Millennial Generation Z) working side-by-side.

The differences in work attitudes and styles between generations can be subtle but include attitudes toward work and supervision, preferred communication style, training needs, and work habits. An inclusive workplace culture attempts to manage the differences among generations and leverage the unique strengths of each generation.

Employers can benefit from an inclusive multigenerational work culture as knowledge and expertise are transferred among generations. This knowledge transfer can work both ways. Older workers may benefit from new methods and technologies that younger workers bring to your office, facility, or worksite.

The NCPAW’s approach emphasizes the importance of the work environment and organizational programs or strategies designed to meet the changing needs of workers across a life span. NCPAW projects have focused both on research into health and safety issues encountered in older workers and disseminating tools employers can use to protect an aging workforce.

Completed and ongoing research projects have included projects at Georgia Tech School of Engineering to develop a proof of concept for a shoulder motion-capture system that monitors exposure to overhead work and develop and test an advanced prototype of the shoulder motion-capture system monitoring such exposures.

Keeping Training Fresh

Older workers are quite capable of learning new skills, tasks, and procedures, but training methods may need to be modified for older people in order to improve their learning efficiency.

Considerations for training older workers include:

  • Allowing extra time for training, maybe even employing self-paced learning schedules;
  • Ensuring that help is available and easy to access;
  • Ensuring that the training environment is free from distractions;
  • Using well-organized training material with important information highlighted;
  • Addressing learners’ concerns about equipment or technology used in training;
  • Minimizing demands on workers’ spatial abilities and working memory;
  • Providing sufficient practice to reinforce learning; and
  • Providing an active learning situation, allowing workers to discover ways of accomplishing tasks.

To address transportation safety issues associated with older workers, you can take the following steps:

  • Assign a key management team member with the responsibility and authority to set and enforce a comprehensive driver safety policy;
  • Do not require workers to drive irregular hours or far beyond their normal working hours;
  • Assess driving ability through regular physical exams by trained health professionals, and restrict driving based on assessments of driving ability;
  • If a worker’s ability to drive is affected temporarily or permanently, make efforts to accommodate that worker with other job duties; and
  • Maintain complete and accurate records of workers’ driving performance.