Older Workers Create Concern About Safety
By Safety Management Group
If you’ve noticed that you’re seeing more gray hair on your worksites, you’re not alone. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the number of workers age 55 and older will have jumped by 55 percent over 2014 levels by 2024. That compares to an increase of just five percent for younger workers.
The graying of the Baby Boom generation and declines in birth rates mean that fewer young people will be entering the workforce. As the demand for workers grows, companies will find the average age of their employees is climbing.
That transition will undoubtedly create many cultural shifts, but how many employers recognize the impact it will have upon workplace safety? Older workers may have a strong desire to work safely and do a good job, but human physiology may get in their way. You’re no doubt aware that the human body’s functioning declines gradually over the years, reducing mobility and flexibility. A greater concern to safety professionals is declines in cognitive function.
The combination of all those factors suggests that older workers are more likely to become injured or suffer illnesses in the workplace. Studies have concluded that it takes older workers longer to recover from injuries and return to their jobs. One found that workers ages 55 to 64 lost an average of 11 days of work when injured, compared to eight days for the overall workforce.
More disturbing is the fact that an older worker’s injuries are more likely to be severe or fatal than those suffered by a younger worker. For example, in 2017, the fatal injury rate for workers age 65 and older was 10.3 per 100,000, while it was just 3.5 per 100,000 for all workers.
On the positive side, older workers had fewer short-term absences than their younger counterparts and may bring higher levels of technical skills to their jobs.
The shifts in population and the challenges of today’s economic situation suggest that employers who haven’t already dealt with the challenges of an aging workforce will do so in the near future. That means they will need to develop greater awareness of the particular safety challenges faced by older workers and must adapt policies and procedures appropriately.
As an example, employers may need to modify their safety training and hazard communication programs to reflect the different needs and ability levels of older workers. They may also want to consider assessing the need for other types of personal protective equipment that are better-suited for the needs of those workers.
Tasks should be analyzed to determine if they present additional challenges for older workers, and modified or reassigned to others when appropriate. Adding new features or safety devices to equipment may address the workers’ needs, as may offering more frequent breaks or shifting tasks during the workday.
Be aware of the impacts that medical conditions and medications may have upon the employee’s job performance and safety considerations. Medication may produce undesirable side effects, such as lightheadedness, or it may make a worker more susceptible to illness or ill effects from exposure to hazardous substances.
It’s also advisable to increase the emphasis on all aspects of wellness, particularly those associated with aging. For example, screenings and conservation activities related to hearing and vision will help to protect the workers’ quality of life while addressing workplace safety concerns.
The aging of the workforce is inevitable, and the sooner employers begin to address the challenges, the better able they’ll be to serve their needs and those of their employees. Not only will that benefit today’s aging workers; it will ensure that the workplace is ready for us when we fall into that demographic category.