Back to Basics, Injuries and Illness, Personnel Safety

Back to Basics: Managing Older Workers

Back to Basics is a weekly feature that highlights important but possibly overlooked information that any EHS professional should know. This week, we examine how to manage the growing population of older workers.

It’s no secret that the aging workforce is having a major impact on workplaces. According to Pew Research Center, the current workforce of 11 million older Americans has nearly quadrupled in the last 40 years. This is partly due to the growth of the 65-and-older population.

There are more older adults working today than 40 years ago. Pew reports that 19% of adults aged 65 and older are employed now, compared to 11% in 1987; meanwhile, 9% of adults aged 75 and older are working today, compared to 4% in 1987.

Pew attributes the increase in older adults who are working to several factors, including:

  • Older Americans have higher education levels today than they did in the past. Adults with higher levels of education are more likely to be employed than those with less education.
  • Older adults are healthier now, making it possible to work longer.
  • Employers have moved their retirement plan offerings to defined contribution plans such as 401(k)s and away from defined benefit plans such as pensions, which encouraged workers to retire at a certain age.
  • Changes to the Social Security system, raising the age that workers receive their full retirement benefits from 65 to 67, may be encouraging older adults to delay retirement and keep working.
  • Many jobs have become more age-friendly in the last few decades, requiring less strenuous physical activity and allowing flexible work schedules.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), labor force participation rates for workers aged 55 or older is expected to increase through 2030, while participation rates for other age groups are projected to remain level or decline.

Aging workers may provide the following benefits to the workplace:

  • Institutional knowledge
  • Applicable experience
  • Low stress levels on the job
  • Get along well with co-workers
  • Cautious on the job

Aging’s impact on safety

Aging can affect a variety of health conditions and outcomes, including chronic conditions and the likelihood of a workplace injury. More than 75% of all workers have at least one chronic condition, according to NIOSH.

The two most common health conditions facing older workers are arthritis and hypertension, with nearly half of workers aged 55 and older experiencing at least one of the conditions. With many older workers experiencing chronic conditions, they may be absent from work; they also may show up to work sick.

NIOSH says older workers tend to experience fewer workplace injuries than their younger colleagues, either due to their experience or because they are more careful and aware of their physical limits. When they do suffer injuries, older workers may require more time to recover, so employers should have a well-planned return to work program.

There is a higher rate of workplace fatalities for older workers, so employers should keep in mind how to best adapt working conditions to protect this population. In addition, it’s advisable to develop preventive programs to help maintain or build the health of employees through their working career.

Age-friendly workplace

According to NIOSH, managers can create age-friendly workplaces by doing the following:

  • Prioritizing workplace flexibility and matching tasks to abilities.
  • Give workers input into their schedule and work tasks.
  • Use self-paced work, rest breaks, and less repetitive tasks.
  • Provide reasonable accommodations after an illness or injury.
  • Avoid prolonged, sedentary work.
  • Managing hazards such as noise, slip/trip/fall hazards, and physical hazards
  • Providing and designing ergonomic-friendly work environments.
  • Providing health promotion and lifestyle interventions.
  • Investing in training and building worker skills and competencies.
  • Help older employees learn and adapt to new technologies.
  • Providing age-inclusive management training for supervisors.

Considerations for older drivers

At workplaces where older workers drive vehicles, employers can take actions to keep those drivers safe on the job.

Research shows that older drivers are more likely than their younger counterparts to adopt safe behaviors such as wearing a seat belt or obeying speed limits, according to NIOSH. But those aged 55 and older have twice the risk of dying in a work-related crash than younger workers. Physical and mental abilities can decline with age, putting older workers at greater risk of serious injury if they are involved in a motor vehicle accident. In 2022, motor vehicle crashes accounted for 36% of all work-related deaths among workers aged 55 and older.

NIOSH says employers should use the following recommendations to develop safety and health programs that consider the needs of older drivers:

  • Consider whether the work can be done without driving so you can reduce the amount of driving required, which is the most effective way to prevent vehicle accidents.
  • Implement policies that allow drivers to consult with their supervisors to adjust driving hours if they have difficulty seeing at night, and to stop driving if they are too tired or the weather is bad.
  • Provide refresher training that includes safe-driving strategies, changes in road rules, regulations on distracted driving, and new vehicle safety features.
  • Restrict driving based on an assessment of actual driving ability, instead of general health status or an arbitrary age limit.
  • Give workers general information about the possible effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications on driving.

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