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How to cope with an “age-gifted” workforce

July 24, 2012

Older workerWhile some employers view the aging U.S. workforce with concern, others take a more positive approach and have implemented policies and practices that support a more competitive, sustainable and safer workforce, regardless of its overall age. 

A National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Science blog post by L. Casey Chosewood, MD, outlines strategies for addressing issues that may arise from having “age-gifted workers” on the payroll.

The concerns are real enough: age-related health care costs, workers compensation and pension liabilities, fear about an impending shortage of skilled labor as experienced workers retire.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that 25% of the workforce will be over 55 in 2020. That’s one in four workers — up from one in every five workers just two years ago. Chosewood attributes the change to the elimination of mandatory retirement and the enactment of age discrimination laws, as well as higher life expectancy and improved health.

While older workers are more likely to have chronic health conditions and physical limitations, that doesn’t translate into decreased performance. In fact, Chosewood highlights some advantages of hiring older workers: they’re generally more experienced, have better relationships with co-workers and have fewer non-fatal injuries then their younger counterparts.

Chosewood said optimizing the workplace for an aging workforce should include well-designed work stations, matching jobs tasks to worker capacity and developing workplace policies based on their health effects on workers.

“Many effective workplace solutions are simple, don’t have to cost very much, and can have large benefits if implemented properly with worker input and support throughout all levels of management,” he said.

Among the strategies he recommends:

  • Be flexible. To the extent possible, give workers a say in their schedule, work conditions, work organization, work location and work tasks. 
  • Match tasks to abilities. Use self-paced work, self-directed rest breaks and less repetitive tasks
  • Avoid prolonged, sedentary work – it’s bad for workers at every age. Consider sit/stand workstations and walking workstations for workers who traditionally sit all day. Provide onsite physical activity opportunities or connections to low-cost community options.
  • Manage noise hazards (including excess background noise), slip/trip hazards, and physical hazards, conditions that can challenge an aging workforce more.
  • Provide ergo-friendly work environments — workstations, tools, floor surfaces, adjustable seating, better illumination where needed, and screens and surfaces with less glare. 

Click here to read Chosewood’s complete post.

Dr. Chosewood is the Senior Medical Officer for Total Worker HealthTM at NIOSH

For more information on Total Worker HealthTM vist the NIOSH TWH Topic Page www.cdc.gov/niosh/twh/