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October 23, 2007
Managing Safety for the Aging Workforce

Nearly 25 percent of people aged 64 to 75 are still in the workforce today, and this number is projected to increase dramatically in the coming years as the activist generation of Baby Boomers reach retirement age yet don't want to stop being active, according to Gregory Petty of the University of Tennessee. The good news, Petty told safety professionals at the National Safety Council's (NSC) 95th Congress & Expo, is that older workers have a lower injury rate. The bad news is that their injuries are more serious and require more time away from work.

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Petty sites these specific safety concerns for older workers:

  • Shorter memory
  • More easily distracted, e.g., by environmental noise
  • Slower reaction time
  • Declining vision and hearing
  • Poorer sense of balance
  • Denial of decreasing abilities, which can lead to employees trying to work past their new limits

These physical limitations lead to the following injury types for older workers:

  • Falls caused by poor balance, slowed reaction time, visual problems, or distractions
  • Sprains and strains from loss of strength, endurance, and flexibility
  • Cardiopulmonary overexertion in heat or cold, at heights, using respirators, or in confined spaces
  • Health- or disease-related illnesses, such as diabetes, cancer, osteoporosis, coronary artery disease, or hypertension
  • Accumulation injuries from years of doing the same task, e.g., truck drivers who experience loss of hearing in left ear from road noise with cab window open

Petty says to look for these signs that older workers may need accommodations:

  • Physical signs, such as fatigue, tripping
  • Psychological or emotional signs, such as loss of patience, irritability
  • Feedback from supervisors or co-workers on declining performance
  • Numbers and patterns of sick days
  • History of minor injuries or near misses

Petty recommends these strategies for protecting older workers:

  • Find ways to work smarter, not harder.
  • Decrease exertional activities, such as in heat or cold or climbing ladders.
  • Adjust work areas, such as installing better lighting, reducing noise, removing obstacles, and decreasing the need to bend or stoop.
  • Redefine what constitutes "productive."
  • Know your workers' limitations, perhaps by conducting annual hearing or vision tests.

In addition, Petty urges employers to make sure the safety culture is an institutional value. For example, when co-worker feedback indicates an older worker is having trouble, the employer's response should not be to fire the older worker, because that will discourage honest feedback from employees who feel responsible for their co-worker's loss of employment.

Other responses employers can use to keep valuable older employees on the job include:

  • Wellness programs
  • Flexible schedules
  • Extra unpaid vacation
  • More medical leave than the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) requires
  • Allowing less than full-time work with full-time benefits
  • Allowing long weekends after heavy workweeks
  • Giving more positive feedback than to younger workers
  • Setting more specific goals
  • Conducting ageism training for supervisors and co-workers to make them aware of the different working styles across the generations
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