The U.S. workforce – like the general population – is aging, and that trend brings with it consequences which affect workplace health and safety in a significant way.
The large attendance at a Safety 2015 session entitled, “The Silver Tsunami, Are You Ready for the Shifting Age Paradigm?” suggested an understanding on the part of safety practitioners that this issue is a serious one, and one that will affect many companies.
Scott B. Lassila, CSP, CSM, APS of Aon in Houston discussed how the greying of the workforce affects safety.
Breaking bodies down
“We have people doing tasks or doing jobs that we haven’t seen historically,” said Lassila. “We have older people doing jobs that probably older people shouldn’t be doing, because it’s breaking their bodies down.”
Approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population is in the 60+ age range, and it’s not just the U.S. that is experiencing this demographic shift. The trend is a global one, with Japan having the oldest population and the Philippines the youngest.
When it comes to the workforce, 44 percent is over 45 years of age.
Why does this matter?
Affected by age
Lassila outlined a whole host of physical conditions that are affected by age, such as vision (pupils get smaller and vision deteriorates), flexibility, balance and muscle strength. Even foot arches get smaller over time.
Additionally, the risk of cancer, obesity, arthritis, osteoporosis and cardiovascular disease increases as we age. Obesity is a common denominator in many other health problems, such as sleep apnea – which can causes fatigue among workers and increase the likelihood of accidents.
Older workers have higher rates of absenteeism, reduced outputs and, when injured, have longer recovery times.
So what can EHS professionals do to manage the effects of age when it comes to safety and health?
“As employers, as safety people, we’re going to have to start dealing with this,” said Lassila.
One way is with stretch and flex programs, which can help reduce the occurrence the strains and sprains on shoulders, knees and ankles.
Other strategies suggested by Lassila: job rotation; adjusting workplace elements like lighting, to help compensation for vision changes; and involving people in wellness programs. To that end, Lassila said that companies need to stop operating as a set of independent “silos” and instead, have Safety, HR, Wellness and Benefits departments communicate with each other.
“Wellness programs work,” he said. “You guys as safety people should be selling this to your HR people.”
From ISHN subscriber Bob Fox Ph.D., CPE; General Motors Technical Fellow for Ergonomics; Chair, US TAG to ISO TC159/SC3 Anthropometry and Biomechanics:
I read the short article about the aging workforce with interest. In many ways the issue is much more complex and in some ways older workers are not as bad off as some of the commentators make them. Here is a link to a recent article in Professional Safety that I authored with several co-authors from Liberty Mutual on this issue: http://www.mywarehouseonline.com/graphics/0427/168008_ASSE_012015_dn.pdf
The automotive and other industries have aging workforces so this is an on-going concern for me. In the article we addressed some of the myths and misunderstandings associated with aging workers and we have reviewed ergonomics guidelines in the light of the aging issue. We have had some conference presentations on this as well. While the issue is complex in many ways, there are actions that safety engineers and ergonomists can take to make their work environments safer and more productive for older workers and indeed all workers and in the article we touch on some specifics.