How effectively is your organization engaging its aging workers? The measures you take to understand and address the emerging needs of workers as they go through the aging process will go a long way to helping your firm meet its productivity objectives and achieve or maintain operational excellence. 

According to the U.S. Department of Labor, workers aged 45 – 55 now comprise 44 percent of the workforce; more than one in five workers is over 55. While many employers benefit from the knowledge, experience and reliability of these individuals, they need to recognize how aging affects workers and examine ways to enhance worker safety and maintain productivity.

Generally, older workers tend to have decreased strength, muscle mass, reduced fitness levels, lower aerobic capacity, increased body fat, poorer visual and audio acuity and slower cognitive speed and function. These employees may be slower at performing certain tasks; they may need more rest periods, better lighting, limited lifting requirements, sit/stand options and longer recovery times for injuries.

Besides specific assessments and recommendations to improve lighting, signage, work stations and other physical aspects of jobs, employers need to engage older workers in new ways so they actively participate in training, safety and wellness programs. Indeed, employee engagement is a key to making each of these initiatives successful.

Here are some proven approaches for employers to engage aging workers more effectively in specific safety, ergonomics, and wellness initiatives that can facilitate reduced injuries and claim severity, better productivity and improved worker satisfaction. 

Revisiting Safety Training

Effective training is a critical part of enhancing safety and improving job related injuries. Aging workers have been through so many training regimens over the course of their careers that they may not respond as effectively to certain formats that might have worked when they were new to their roles.

So, you might want to revisit the approaches you’ve taken with training. For example, consider redesigning training modules so that they’re both more interactive and focused on issues that relate directly to aging workers.

Instead of playing a video or subjecting employees to a lecture format presentation, conduct classroom training with hands-on learning opportunities. Be sure to address high-risk exposures for aging workers, such as preventing falls, musculoskeletal issues and ergonomics-related problems.

One of the biggest drawbacks to training for aging workers is that it typically is not grounded in the fundamental physical, cognitive and psychosocial issues they face, nor is it aligned with the core causes of absenteeism among these workers.

Health conditions are another factor. Studies reveal a higher incidence of safety-related issues involving employees with diabetes. Does your organization’s safety training include diabetes as a risk factor for job-related injuries? In addition, obesity, reduced muscle strength, changes in gait and reduced vision all need to be contemplated in training programs and safety assessment tools should be adjusted to address aging workers.

Adjusting Ergonomics for Aging Workers

While incorporating a worker’s physical capabilities and limitations is fundamental to any ergonomics assessment, it should be a starting point with aging workers. In effect, be sure to make use of age-specific ergonomic evaluations that help fit the job to the employee rather than the reverse. Accordingly, time and motion studies play an important role. By reducing the time and range of motion required to complete specific tasks, they also can help reduce fatigue.

Beyond looking at range of motion and fatigue, all ergonomics tools should be evaluated and modified to address aging. These include repetition rates, strength capabilities, compression forces and other measurements, all of which should be assessed and benchmarked for aging workers’ epidemiological and biomedical modifiers.

Similarly, engineers designing workplace layouts need to address aging and leading indicators should be implemented to track early symptoms of musculoskeletal disorders.

Collaborating with Human Resources and Risk Management

In addition to measures taken by health and safety professionals to make the workplace safer and more productive for aging workers, there’s an opportunity to collaborate with human resources executives in several areas to enhance worker engagement and satisfaction. Here are some specific opportunities to target:

  • Capture and review trend data from benefits programs. Use aging worker loss data from employee benefit programs to gain insights that might be helpful in job-related injury prevention. Collaborate with your organization’s risk management and human resources/employee benefits professionals to check trends in workers’ compensation claims, absences due to short- and long-term disability, Family Medical Leave Act and other factors to inform what might be needed in the workplace with respect to safety and ergonomic measures.
  • Align wellness with job physical demands and workforce demographics. Gather insights from your organization’s workers’ compensation injury trend data on causality and severity to pinpoint aspects of employee fitness to target for improvement so workers are better able to meet the physical requirements of their jobs. Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control indicate that one in three adults in America are diabetic or pre-diabetic; injured workers with these conditions tend to require longer recovery times. These conditions also may exacerbate any injuries sustained on the job.
  • Leverage human resource programs and activities in safety, training and ergonomics. An employer’s human resource department is a critical partner in facilitating job-related safety and productivity. From the creation of a detailed job description that includes the physical demands of individual positions in the organization and the assessment of the age-appropriateness of any job, to providing worker demographics, such as age stratification, human resource professionals are well positioned to provide the critical information needed for the design and implementation of effective safety and ergonomics initiatives.
  • Make use of both formal and informal feedback mechanisms. Besides gathering individual worker feedback through interactive training, ergonomics assessments and safety evaluations, safety professionals should collaborate with human resources to gauge employee satisfaction levels with workplace safety practices through formal surveys, focus groups and other structured approaches. These methods not only engage employees, but help to facilitate continuous improvement in workplace safety and productivity.

By making sure workers have age-appropriate duties and receive ergonomics and safety support and training that are tailored to their needs, environmental health and safety professionals can help aging workers avoid injury and continue to perform at high levels. For employers that have large numbers of aging workers, this is a critical step toward achieving operational excellence.

About the author: Scott Lassila, a managing consultant in the Casualty Risk Consulting practice of Aon, specializes in workers’ compensation and general liability risk control, including: evaluation of management control systems applied to safety, program development, safety culture improvement, behavior-based safety and training. An OSHA outreach trainer for the 10- and 30-hour classes for both construction and general industry, Lassila is a professional member of American Society of Safety Engineers and holds the certified safety professional (CSP), associate safety professional (ASP), certified safety manager (CSM), and approved professional source (APS) professional designations. He can be reached at scott.lassila@aon.com.