OCTOBER COVER STORY: Battling Boomeritis
October 1, 2007
Usually when Doug (we’ll use his first name only) comes home from work he draws a hot bath and soaks for 20 minutes. Work for Doug, 49, is delivering assorted breads and cakes to supermarkets and convenience stores, something he’s been doing for 23 years.
The baths help his aching knees, swollen from hopping up and down his truck’s back bumper a hundred or more times a day on his route, as he reaches for racks of bread and cakes. “It’s that repetitive motion,” he says.
Doug’s had MRIs on both knees and has rotator cuff damage in a shoulder. His doctor says he’s close to being bone on bone in his right knee. “Some guys have had their knees scoped,” he says. “Some have bad backs. I might need knee replacement someday. Arthritis is setting in.”
While he and his wife vacationed in Maine this summer, his route was handled by a 63-year-old driver. “We have another guy who’s 65,” says Doug. A stout 6’1” and 210 pounds, Doug plans to run deliveries until he hits 55, the early retirement age at his company. “Then I’ll do something else. Using your body for work, I wouldn’t recommend it.”
Instead of a hot bath, maybe Doug should invest in an Energy Pod. According to www.metronaps.com, “tired workers can snuggle into sleek adjustable pods, put on noise-blocking Bose headphones or listen to calming music for ergonomic 20-minute power naps.”
Pods are pricey, though, about $8,000 each â€” probably not the universal cure for what ails workers like Doug. But in this article we’ll give you ten tactics to turn age to the advantage of your safety and health activities.
1) Have a plan in hand
Doug, of course, is by no means alone. Aging, aching baby boomer workers represent a pandemic of sorts. As boomers began to turn 40 and 50, there was a veritable explosion of bone and joint aches, pains, injuries and ailments, dubbed boomeritis by the American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons and the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine in 2001.
It’s a serious concern for safety and health pros. “Age of workers by far trumps anything else having to do with safety programs. Period,” says Steve Damsker, a loss control representative.
But who’s paying attention? “Studies show most employers are not planning for the aging baby boomer generation,” a 2000 article in Risk & Insurance reported.
“I do not see management taking any steps to change the workplace to accommodate aging workers,” says Damsker.
Statistics clearly paint the picture. Across the nation, the average age of a skilled manufacturing worker was 40.1 in 2002, according the Industrial College of Armed Forces Industry Studies.
And 18.4 million workers were over age 55 at the turn of this century, according to a 2001 General Accounting Office report. The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that number will reach 31.9 million â€” nearly one in every five workers â€” by 2015.
The average age of a General Motors machinist is currently 55, according to The Manufacturing Institute arm of the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). That’s also the average age of auto workers in general in the U.S.
Policy-makers and regulators have done little about the aging workforce. “Far less attention has been paid to the health and safety needs of older American workers” than issues such as Medicare and Social Security, retirement savings, and long-term healthcare, according to the 2004 report “Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers,” written by a committee convened by the National Research Council and the Institute of Medicine.
Your first step, then, in the battle against boomeritis is developing a plan. Three resources will help: the free executive summary of “Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers,” published by the National Academies Press, www.nap.edu/catalog/10884.html; the 2001 report by the General Accounting Office (GAO), “Demographic Trends Pose Challenges for Employers and Workers,” www.gao.gov/new.items/d0285.pdf; and a 2007 GAO report, “Some Best Practices for Engaging and Retaining Older Workers,” www.gao.gov/new.items/d07433t.pdf.
2) Boomer, know thy bounds
“Most of us, or at least I think most of us, don’t have an image of ourselves as old,” says a post on the Web site www.youreover50.com.
A dose of reality can be part of your plan. Topics are almost endless â€” including refreshers in proper lifting, hearing conservation, driving; recognizing ergonomic hazards; off-the-job safety subjects such as adjusting to hearing and vision loss; stretching, flexibility, range of motion and balance exercises; chronic disease awareness and pain management.
A word about tact: “In my presentations I discuss older workers taking shortcuts,” says safety lecturer and motivational speaker John Drebinger. “First I refer to these people as experienced workers or any other term which creates a positive image in my mind.”
Don’t dwell on the problems of aging, advises consultant Robert Pater. “North American culture seems to over-focus on the benefits of youth and the losses of aging,” he says. But facts are facts. A loss of flexibility comes with age. Joints have less lubrication and the elasticity of muscles, tendons and ligaments diminishes with time.
The result: Between 1991 and 1998 the Consumer Product Safety Commission reported the number of trips to the emergency room for sports-related injuries to baby boomers increased 33 percent. Many of these injuries relate to overuse. A Yale orthopaedic surgeon estimated the number of boomer bumps and bruises at 90,000 injuries a year.
Boomers are also PPE-resistant off the job. Only 43 percent wear bike helmets.
3) Improve your bottom line
“The trend toward longer working lives and greater employer reliance on older employees has significant cost implications,” reported Risk & Insurance, in its 2000 article.
In California, the proportion of male injured workers in their 40s jumped from 16 percent to 22 percent between 1993 and 2000, while the proportion of male injured workers over age 50 went from 10 percent to 15 percent, according to a report, “Shifting Age and Gender Demographics Among California Workers’ Compensation Injured Workers.”
Where there are costs, there are opportunities for cost savings. Safety and health programs aggressive in reducing risks to older workers through training, exercise, ergonomics programs and health promotion could produce bottom line benefits.
“Obesity and lack of exercise, by everyone, not just boomers, are costing our companies billions if not trillions of dollars,” says Aaron Chen, MPH, CIH, Clean & Disinfect Global Product Steward/Senior Industrial Hygienist, for DuPont.
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), older workers experience relatively high (and costly) rates of workplace fatality and high injury severity. The number of lost workday cases among older workers has been slowly rising since 1992; workers aged 45 and older accounted for 30 percent of lost workday cases reported by the BLS for 2000.
In 2005, the 282,310 lost-time injuries sustained by workers 45-54 was more than double the injuries to workers 20-24 (133,760).
4) Relieve the distress
“Stress is undoubtedly one of the leading contributing factors of health problems and premature aging,” says a post from the Web site www.youreover50.com.
And boomer workers have much on their minds.
“You see ‘presentism’ starting as soon as the boomer leaves the door from home. They are distracted by work, by life, by kids, by parents, by friends, and outside activities. How can you get anyone to focus when they are never focused to begin with? This is a tough one,” says Aaron Chen.
Of course it’s not just older workers who are contending with life’s pressures. “As for distractions, I think every age group has the same number, they just change according to your age,” says John Drebinger.
“Each generation at their point in life believes they are dealing with more stress than others. People with young children deal with issues such as daycare, illness, school schedules, sports, etc. The next level is thinking how they are going to pay for their college education, etc. Next, what am I going to do to make enough money in retirement? Add to this divorce, death and other issues â€” there are plenty of distractions to go around for everyone.”
Daily pressures and distractions can produce mental health problems. These include the consequences of work-related stress, clinical depression, and other psychological problems such as burnout, alcohol and other substance abuse, unexplained physical symptoms, and chronic fatigue, according to the report, “Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers.”
The report continues: “The problem with alcohol and drug abuse at work may increase as the baby boomer cohort grows older, because this cohort has higher rates of substance abuse, including alcohol, than previous generations.”
A good news-bad news paradox is found in the “Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers” report: increasing recognition of work-related mental health issues among older workers is undermined by the fact that “most employee assistance programs (EAPs) have not emphasized needs related to aging.”
5) Don’t ignore lifestyle issues
Many baby boomers can’t hear well in a restaurant or at a party after years of high noise levels at work. According to a recent New York Times article, about one in six boomers have hearing loss. “None of us protected our ears at all,” said rocker Pat Benatar in the Times article.
And vision is going, too. “The AT&T White Pages phone book is shrinking,” complained a reader to The Kansas City Star blog. “Increase the tiny font size… so that we baby boomers with bifocals can read the names and numbers without a magnifying glass!”
“I’ve increased the magnification on my computer screen to 110-120 percent to make it easier to read. I carry and use my earplugs all of the time,” says safety manager Barry Weissman.
Meanwhile, waistlines are expanding. “Today’s Baby Boomers Are Heavier And More Likely To Have Arthritis,” headlined a 2005 press release from Boston’s Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. The obesity epidemic is nationwide, but baby boomers got a much earlier start, said the report.
“As a card-carrying boomer myself, I’m sensitive to the issue that despite the ‘forever young’ theme, many older workers are overweight, and some smoke. Many still act like they are 25, and don’t adjust their behavior to the realities of their physical condition and stamina,” says Davidson College psychology professor and management consultant Dr. John Kello.
6) Fitness matters
“I have seen too many boomers who keep putting off their physical well-being until they are at a point of no return,” says Aaron Chen. “So many medical conditions can be resolved or avoided by just assuring a fit workforce.”
More than half of all large businesses offer some menu of wellness/fitness services such as nutrition education, weight management assistance, health risk assessments, and help with quitting smoking, according to a survey by the Hay Group, a consulting firm. More than a quarter offer fitness coaching and discounts on health club memberships.
But a big challenge confronting wellness program promoters always has been luring the seriously overweight or out of shape to participate. At the end of the workday, the couch can look more appealing than an incline board.
In some workplaces, demands of the job can motivate older workers to be fit. “Once you become 50 you have to do some sort of conditioning program,” a New York City firefighter told The New York Times in a recent article. One firefighter, 54, runs four or five miles a day and uses a stair machine to stay in shape. Another 50+ firefighter told The Times: “If I couldn’t stay in shape and do the job, I’d have to leave.”
Annual physicals for NYC firefighters include tests of vision, hearing and blood pressure, as well as tests under physical exertion like climbing stairs, and blood tests. Blood pressure is checked before and after climbing. Those who do not pass are reassigned to light duty or desk jobs.
7) How’s your ergonomics program?
Jobs with biomechanical risk factors present the most common high-risk exposures to older workers, according to “Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers.”
Canadian safety pro Craig Journeay once worked as a sawmill laborer and says he realized “first-hand the physical stresses and strains (older workers) struggle with on a daily basis.” Writing in his 2006 Recipient Essay for the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety Dick Martin Scholarship Award, Journeay said his experience instilled in him “the desire to take a proactive approach to implement solutions to accommodate aging workers.”
At Alcoa Inc., the world’s leading producer of primary and fabricated aluminum, with 122,000 employees in 44 countries, one of its plant’s largest challenges regarding the safety of older workers “is ergonomic-related, which relates to physical conditioning and engineering out of excessive postures, lifting, etc.,” according to facility safety manager John Wesley.
“We have implemented a 25-pound weight limit for the entire plant,” says Wesley. “Early intervention with the use of an ergonomics concern form and identification of significant risks have been the focus to recognize, evaluate, and control these hazards. We have also implemented mandatory stretching before shift and after lunch. Micro-breaks are encouraged throughout the day. Much of our experience has been in custom-devising systems to prevent soft-tissue injuries, which is the bane of older workers.”
8) Mentoring & coaching
“Aging boomer workers have forgotten (but know it by rote) more than what the neophytes will ever learn or accomplish,” because today’s workforce tends to job-hop far more than the boomer generation, says loss control rep Damsker.
Do you have “safety godfathers” at your facility? Consultant Kello helped one client company “build and run a world-class mentoring program, with senior, more experienced employees working one-on-one with junior high-potential employees, to ‘godfather’ them for a period of time, to help with their career development.”
Managers might need to be sold on giving older workers time to mentor. “If upper management is savvy enough to allow the older workforce the time to supervise, coach and teach by example â€” lead safety toolbox meetings are a prime opportunity â€” there would be fewer injuries,” says Damsker.
At his Alcoa facility, Wesley reports “many ‘boomers’ are voluntary area EHS coordinators who perform job safety observations, 5S housekeeping inspections, safety shop talks, etc.”
9) Be reasonable
“It isn’t that the average working guy is dumb. He’s tired, that’s all.” â€” a 37-year-old steel mill worker from Cicero, Ill., quoted in Studs Terkel’s 1972 book, “Working.”
“It is almost a fact of life that when we get more ‘experienced’ we tend to resist change,” says safety expert Carl Metzgar. “Most people get set in their ways, don’t want to do new things or think they have already figured it all out. This sometimes makes it more difficult for a new safety and health professional to impact change in the boomer-filled work environment. The old ‘been there, done that’ routine is heard over and over and over.”
That attitude may stem from the fact that many older workers “have been doing it the old way for years without a mishap or an injury,” says John Drebinger. If you want them to adopt new safety practices, “we need to give them a good reason why it is in their best interest to take the new or extra precaution,” he says. With their injury-free track record, “from their perspective what we are asking them to do appears to be unreasonable.”
10) Get real
For younger safety and health managers, establishing credibility with an older workforce is almost a prerequisite for tapping their experience and leveraging them as a safety asset.
Keep this in mind: The older age group “sometimes resists change but not because they are getting older, but because they perceive the fraud and deception foisted on them by human resource departments,” says Metzgar. “People resist change only when they perceive it as costing them something.
“Workers had no difficulty going from glass in their eye protection to the equally good lighter plastic. That was an improvement and didn’t cost them anything. When workers see change as an improvement and not as a decrement there is no resistance, only the question, ‘What took so long?’”
“Most folks are savvy and smart and can, when presented with the facts, come up with the right things that need to be done in the workplace,” says Chen. “And most of the time they can do 90 percent-plus of the work all on their own, with the EHS professional just providing a nudge every now and then.”
And you might not need to nudge too hard. Workers over age 50 have reported in health surveys that their jobs contain many physical and emotional challenges and stresses, but most say that they enjoy going to work, according to the “Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers” report.