Aging Workforce Presents New Safety Challenges

As the number of employees over the age of 55 continues to rise, businesses are faced with the challenge of retaining these workers while reducing health- and injury-related losses. Loss control specialists Tina Minter and Russell Dronne with the Chubb Group of Insurance Companies examined this challenge and offered businesses advice in a session titled, "The Aging Workforce--It's Not Just Ergonomics" earlier this month at the American Society of Safety Engineers' Professional Development Conference and Exposition, Safety 2008, in Las Vegas.

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data show that aging workers have fewer workplace injuries, but diabetes, hypertension, and other age-related ailments are helping to increase employers' costs associated with medical insurance and lost work production; nevertheless, businesses can help mitigate their losses by improving policies and workplace design to allow employees to continue to work in a safe and healthy environment, Minter said. "Older workers are highly valued by employers for their judgment, flexibility, experience, and creativity," she noted. "Fortunately, many of them will work beyond the traditional retirement age of 65, due partly to advances in health care. This presents both opportunities and challenges to businesses, which will need to adapt to maintain a safe work environment for these workers."

Although injury rates among older workers are lower than those of their younger counterparts, other factors can contribute to increased health and safety exposures: age-related chronic disorders and diseases, loss of hearing, impaired vision, and physical and cognitive limitations. Minter advised businesses to take action to address each of these risk factors. Some examples of what businesses can do include:

  • Allow for flexible work hours so that those with poor night vision can adjust their start and finish time to coincide with daylight hours;
  • Encourage employees to use the health care system for preventative well visits;
  • Eliminate heavy lifts, elevated work from ladders, and long reaches;
  • Encourage employees working at a computer to take small breaks every 30 minutes;
  • Don't rely on sound as the sole means of emergency communications, as employees with hearing loss may not hear announcements.

"Employers should include older workers in the design process and seek outside professionals for assistance in adapting the workplace, training, and human resources policies to fit the aging workforce," Dronne said.

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