Re-Engineering for Older Workers

Using available technology, companies can collect and analyze detailed job and task data to develop a clearer picture of what it takes to be effective in each job and to categorize risks by body part.

Take a good look at your company's last holiday photo. Chances are, there are a whole lot more gray-haired employees than there used to be. It's just one informal sign of a long-predicted trend, the aging of the American workforce. The cause is twofold: A faltering economy has chipped away at 401(k) plans, thereby postponing employees' retirement dates. Add years of low birthrates to that, and you have the silver roots of a trend. There is no getting around the numbers. By some estimates, the U.S. economy will require 58 million workers by 2025. However, based on current birth rates, the number of new workers joining the workforce will make up less than half of the projected jobs. That means the gap must be filled by workers over the age of 65. Therefore corporate productivity is greatly dependent on the health and safety of older employees.

The key to preparing for this ongoing change is to understand the fundamental needs of aging employees. The good news is that the older the worker, the more experience and wisdom he or she brings to the office, the field, or the factory floor. However, to maximize the contributions of older workers and prepare the workplace for the long haul, employers need a more comprehensive plan than simply adjusting the lights or altering shelf heights. To avoid the almost certain increase in injury cost and severity, they need an enterprise-wide system to help them identify and act on gaps between the physical capabilities of their workforce and the current physical demands of their job landscape. In fact, the biggest risk aging workers face is that of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD), the most common cause of work-related disability.

As employees age, their strength and range of motion decreases, thereby making them more susceptible to MSDs. Once injured, their recovery time is substantially longer than their younger counterparts'. Therefore, the employee who has been repetitively lifting and shelving over the course of a decade may have to shift responsibilities. Likewise, an employee who is recovering from a shoulder injury may need to find a role off the production floor and in the office until healed.

To ensure fewer injuries and maximize employee productivity over the long haul, companies would benefit from developing a comprehensive system that catalogues the physical requirements and essential functions associated with every job. This kind of system, along with an understanding of the capabilities and/or limitations of the aging workforce, will enable managers to better understand which jobs are suitable for certain employees to perform. This in-depth understanding of job requirements can also help companies:

1. Better understand job-related risks and re-engineer jobs to reduce risk of injury (for all employees, including those with gray hair).

2. Match employees and jobs with greater success and safety.

3. Enhance return-to-work opportunities.

4. Share job- and risk-related information across the organization.

This comprehensive system is made up of a few essential parts: capturing job-related data and entering the job data into a centralized location to make it accessible and usable, and providing relevant stakeholders with access to both sets of data in this location (i.e., HR, Facilities, Worker's Compensation, Safety, Disability Management, etc.).

Understanding Job Risks
A full inventory of and classification system for job and task information, including essential functional and physical demand data, is the foundation of this effort. Many companies have part of this information stored deep in the recesses of their HR Department as part of a job description. Others have performed more thorough investigations in the form of Job Safety Analysis. In almost all cases, this information is stored on a piece of paper and seldom used. Using available technology, companies can both collect and analyze detailed job and task data to develop a clearer picture of what it takes to be effective in each job and to categorize risks by body part.

When companies know which jobs pose greater risks from force, frequency, duration and repetition, they can alter the job process or look for opportunities to re-engineer the job to reduce exposures to the most relevant risk factors. The information may enable employers to introduce measures such as stretching regimens or more frequent breaks to better ensure the safety of employees working on an assembly line. Or it might lead to the insight that unnecessary risk can be engineered out of the assembly line by lowering the standard workstation height. For example, if a manager knows a job requires repetitive overhead reaching for 50 percent of the cycle time, and she determines this job may be inappropriate for employees with an acute shoulder injury or a history of shoulder-related MSD concerns, she might increase task rotation in that area, rearrange the workspace to reduce the need for such frequent overhead reaching, or possibly consider an electronic lift to help those employees avoid reaching overhead.

Matching Job to Employee
As important as knowing the risks inherent to each job is having awareness of the work-related medical history of each employee. Employers must keep careful track of their employees' injuries over the course of their employment. With insight into physical demands and essential functions associated with any given job and with comparison to an employee's particular vulnerabilities, managers can ensure a job's demands will not put an employee at risk for injury or re-injury and subsequent injury-related costs, including disability and absenteeism.

This can be extremely valuable during the post-hire/pre-employment phase. For example, let's say a company hires an employee into the Facilities Department and, through the employee's physical, the hiring manager discovers he has limited range of motion in his shoulder abduction and flexion (i.e., difficulty lifting the arms above his head). By querying the system, the hiring manager could find another job for the employee in the department, in a specific location, that matches the employee's skills and doesn't require excessive overhead work.

And what of the injured employee with a physically demanding job who has to spend weeks with a foot elevated or an arm immobilized but still wants to go back to work? The essential functions of his old job may not be appropriate given his limitations. However, a centralized, searchable system could enable his manager to quickly and easily find a job in another department that he can perform safely while progressing through the healing process. It's a well-documented fact that returning employees to work quickly (and safely) saves money and promotes recovery.

In this same return-to-work scenario, sharing this job information with a physician can help him or her understand the exact physical demand requirements of the patient's work and write a more detailed return-to-work restriction -- one that better estimates how long the employee will be out and, once well enough to re-enter the workplace, what the exact limitations might be. This can help the company avoid returning the employee to a job that will cause re-injury. For example, if the physician knows the employee's old job requires the frequent lifting of 20 pounds and that the employee is recovering from low-back surgery, he or she can advise the company to return the employee to a job that requires lifting only 10 pounds or less from waist height for six weeks, or until the employee has fully recovered.

Improving the Workplace for Everyone, Over the Long Haul
As you can see, maintaining a healthy and effective aging workforce requires more than lowering shelves and improving lighting for employees with waning muscle strength and declining visual acuity. A comprehensive system, if developed correctly, can call immediate attention to problems inherent in job structures or job-matching practices. This is critical to every employee, young and old alike. For instance, knowing a specific job has excessive low-back risk is good. But better is being able to cross-reference that information with past injury trends for employees in that same position in different locations, because it provides valuable insight needed to act. If records are not carefully kept, this red flag of re-injury may escape notice. However, a wise employer, if it has this information, can act on it by re-engineering the job and routinely rotating employees to eliminate injury and fatigue.

A company-wide approach to safety is advantageous to every employee. It is analogous to the curb cuts on sidewalks that were designed to smooth the transition from sidewalk to street for the disabled. Countless others have benefited from this safety measure, including stroller-pushing parents, workers with carts, and toddlers on tricycles. Similarly, a workplace safety innovation created for a specific struggling population can be just as transformative for all.

Companies must look at their employees as long-term investments, not short-term fixes. As employees age, their risk of injury increases, but so does their expertise. Witness the injured forklift operator who may have, over the years, developed an insight into inventory management, or the field operator who may have developed excellent customer interaction skills. Smart employers who have painstakingly tracked job details and analyzed the injuries and skills of long-term employees will find a way to protect them against risk while building on their new and safer potential. By building a sustainable system for re-engineering safer jobs and protecting employees, employers not only will keep them safe, but also they will reap what they sow in the form of healthier and happier employees, saved medical and insurance costs, and much higher productivity from their entire workforce.

This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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