One in every five American workers will be over the age of 65 by 2015, and one in four Americans will be over 55 by 2020, according to NIOSH’s webpage “Healthy Aging at Work” established in March 2014.1

So what’s the concern?

Normal physiological and biological change occurs as people age.  Strength begins to decline at age 30.  Eye sight and hearing diminish. Reflexes slow. Coordination slows. Metabolism slows. Oxygen utilization is less efficient. Bladder control is less efficient. Bones are more brittle. The immune system is weaker. Chronic impairments e.g. arthritis increase. Stability is less. 

Old-age conditions may increase the likelihood of injury, injury severity and recovery time. The leading cause of fatalities for older U.S. workers is crashes on public highways. The second leading cause for fatalities among older workers is falls.  

Ideal worker

Australian employers believe (2013 research) that an “ideal worker” is one that is “young, male, and unattached.”2 U.S. employers have historically embraced this ideal worker profile, too, with the added characteristics of being healthy and devoted to the job – think Mad Men. 

Risk management

Older workers are a risk.  Before you think negative, under ISO 31000 risk management “risk” may also be positive.  There are positives to older workers, such as leadership, that may offset injury risk. Safety pros may be eager to jump into injury risk assessment and treatment for older workers. But under ISO 31000, “context” precedes and is integral throughout risk assessment.

NIOSH’s new webpage for older worker safety is timely but the topic was defined with guidance for action a decade ago in the National Academies Press book (2004) “Health and Safety Needs of Older Workers” (2004).3 Visit the link in the references below to download a free PDF of the book.  Read the book to help frame risk context for older workers.

Reasonable accommodations

NIOSH provides 10 strategies for an “age-friendly workplace.”  You can boil these strategies down into the key risk treatment for older workers: Employers must voluntarily provide reasonable safety accommodations, using hierarchy of controls, on an individual basis to address normal conditions of aging. 

Many voluntary workplace safety accommodations for older workers are “easy to make and inexpensive,” according to NIOSH.

Many employers believe safety accommodation means transferring a worker to a desk job or providing light duty work, such as counting parts in inventory. This happens because HR managers, who may not be familiar the principle of hierarchy of controls, establish accommodations, usually within the context of workers’ compensation return-to-work programs, rather than the safety pro.

In reality, many employers are reluctant to change workplace conditions and practices unless compelled, particularly by law, to act. Reasonable accommodations for older workers are beyond OSHA requirements and old-age conditions often do not rise to the level of impairments considered disabilities required to be addressed within the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendment Act (ADAAA).  

The good Trojan horse

There is an interesting solution to the dilemma of keeping older workers safe in their current job.  The solution is to advocate for reasonable accommodation rights for a class of predominately young workers. Reasonable safety accommodations for a pregnant worker are nearly identical to the accommodation needs of the older worker.

Since December 2012, local laws that impact annually more than one-half million pregnant workers — or nearly one in every five pregnant workers in the U.S. — have been enacted.  The objective: provide reasonable accommodations to keep the pregnant worker safe at her current job. 

Employers must respond to trends and stakeholder interests. In March 2014, Walmart — the U.S.’s largest employer — changed its policy on pregnant workers. The policy now goes beyond current law to accommodate pregnant workers’ safety needs because Walmart says “it’s the right thing to do.”4

Other are likely to follow Walmart’s lead, even those outside the retail industry. Reasonable workplace safety accommodations which were a rare in the past will become more common in the future. 

Do the right thing

Safety pros won’t achieve the highest level of performance locked in an OSHA compliance mindset.  And when safety pros venture beyond OSHA, risk management strategies must focus on ISO 31000 context before they embark on risk assessment and risk treatment.  The ADEA prohibits employer age discrimination beginning at 40 years. The risk context that impacts nearly all safety pros is that they are now or will be an older worker and may eventually need a reasonable safety accommodation themselves.

Again, reasonable safety accommodations are generally beyond OSHA requirements and must be tailored to individual needs rather than to the single class of “worker.”  Safety pros must understand the normal physiological and biological changes that occur with aging but not prejudge an “old” worker’s abilities and willingness to work. Age is just a number. Many older workers will not require an individualized safety accommodation. The older worker themselves should initiate the process to implement accommodations.

Under the good Trojan Horse strategy, laws are effective now in California, Maryland, Philadelphia, New Jersey, New York City, Central Falls (Rhode Island) and West Virginia (effective June 4, 2014).  If your workplace is in one of these locations, initiate a discussion with your employer to determine how reasonable accommodation requirements may be voluntarily applied to the safety needs of older workers. If your workplace is located in New York, Iowa, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Illinois, Missouri, Minnesota, or Providence, Rhode Island, be aware that similar legislation is pending