Proactive injury prevention solutions will bring positive bottom-line results. (Kimberly-Clark Professional/Jackson Safety photo)

Eye on the Aging Workforce

Proactive injury prevention solutions bring positive bottom-line results.

It's no secret that the American workforce is aging. In fact, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that one in five people in the workplace are over the age of 55. The U.S. Census Bureau also suggests that by 2016, one-third of the total U.S. workforce will be age 50 or older and the number of those workers will increase to 115 million by 2020.

Aging can take a toll on employees in the workplace, especially in manufacturing environments. As people age, they can begin to experience reduced visual capacity that can impact their health and safety in the workplace. According to the American Optometric Association (AOA), adults older than 40 are at risk for the development of eye and vision problems, including dry eye or eyestrain, macular degeneration, or glaucoma. Regardless of the ailment, impaired vision can make working safely a real challenge.

Older workers also offer years of experience and wisdom to their workplaces, providing critical mentorship to younger workers or to newly assigned employees. Understanding the incredible value of older employees, it’s important that their health and safety be supported to ensure a workforce meets its full potential. Safety strategies for personal protective equipment, therefore, must be implemented to address the needs of an aging workforce and to optimize worker effectiveness.

The Workplace and Vision Impairment
While all of the effects of aging are important to consider when discussing the risks associated with an aging workforce, the impact of diminished vision cannot be understated. Seeing clearly is essential to safe work practices and performance.

Several common eye conditions experienced by aging workers can have a significant impact on worker health and safety:

  • Presbyopia: Presbyopia is a condition in which the lens of the eye loses its ability to focus, making it difficult to see objects up close. As a result, some employees may experience eye fatigue or headaches while performing tasks that involve intricate work or reading. This condition primarily occurs after the age of 40 and contributes to the need for bifocal glasses. According to the National Eye Institute, it costs an average of $2,100 per year in lost productivity for every employee with eye strain, which can be a result of untreated or under-treated presbyopia.
  • Cataracts: Another common vision-related problem is cataracts. Cataracts are cloudy areas in a portion of or on the lens of eyes. Typically, the lens of an eye is clear and allows light to pass through. Cataracts, however, keep light from easily passing through the lens, causing the loss of eyesight. If a cataract becomes too large, it can be surgically removed. While this is considered a relatively minor surgery, the presence of cataracts has the potential to affect workplace safety and performance significantly.
  • Glaucoma: As one of the leading causes of blindness in the United States, glaucoma can make it difficult for older employees to work because it reduces their vision. Glaucoma can damage vision gradually so that vision loss may not be noticed until the disease is at an advanced stage. An increase in pressure within the eye is usually, but not always, associated with the optic nerve damage that characterizes glaucoma. This decrease in vision can greatly impact worker safety.

Employer Involvement
To address these vision challenges, manufacturers should be prepared to identify ways to support aging workers and provide accommodation to reduce risk due to aging and physical demands. Employers who are not prepared to respond to the needs of workers as they age will likely face production, quality, and workplace safety consequences.

Special attention should be paid to workers with vision problems. Workers with vision problems can experience light sensitivity, which can cause headaches, eye strain, or eye fatigue. These issues also can impede concentration during work tasks. With reduced vision, there is an increased chance of workers losing sight of potentially hazardous objects on the manufacturing floor or accidentally falling or slipping. Some vision problems even can make it difficult to discern between various colors and shapes--an acute health concern for employees working in high-risk workplaces that use differing colors and signage to identify hazards.

Workplace injuries can have a major impact on an employer's bottom line. Recent estimates from OSHA show that employers pay nearly $1 billion per week for direct workers' compensation costs alone. These injuries also tend to increase in severity, recovery time, and cost with older workers. For this reason, it's important that employers be proactive and engaged in ensuring that all workers follow safe work practices and comply with PPE standards. This engagement can embody itself in safety programs and need-based solutions that address the health and safety of all workers.

Vision Protection Solutions
It's critical that employers and employees work together to minimize the work-related consequences of any chronic health conditions or the risk of an occupational injury. While manufacturers can eliminate physical hazards through safety engineering or administrative controls, PPE compliance and safe work practices provide workers of all ages a last line of defense against eye injuries. Unfortunately, data shows many workers who sustain eye injuries were not wearing the PPE that was issued to protect them, with discomfort often cited as a critical factor influencing non-compliance. According to Federal Occupational Health, an agency within the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, nearly 90 percent of eye injuries are preventable if appropriate PPE is worn.

Because safety eyewear today has become so advanced, the development of new eyewear technologies tends to focus not just on function, but also on the issues of fit, comfort, and style. Proper fit is critical to worker acceptance, which leads to improved productivity and compliance. If safety eyewear is more comfortable to wear, workers are more likely to comply with PPE protocols--a winning situation for both workers and employers.

For corrective lens wearers or for workers who require up-close magnification, new safety eyewear is being designed with close-fit prescription Rx lens inserts that can be clipped easily behind safety lenses. Previously, workers who wore prescription lenses had two choices: wearing glasses and risking scratches or wearing safety eyewear over their glasses, which could become uncomfortable and block peripheral vision. These lens inserts are ideal for workers looking at small parts in assembly plants and in maintenance environments, which helps to reduce eye fatigue or strain. As an innovative alternative, these types of safety eyewear do not require workers to compromise on safety, performance, or comfort.

Some of these safety glasses also offer adjustable "click-to-fit" temples to deliver a custom fit for various head shapes and sizes. These features are particularly helpful because an older worker is likely to experience thinning of the skin around the bridge of their nose, which can make heavier eyewear uncomfortable.

Because recovery can take longer for older workers who sustain injuries or burns to their eyes, another important consideration is that any safety eyewear being worn outdoors includes ultraviolet (UV) ray protection and polarization. On work sites where sun glare and reflections would otherwise pose a hazard, polarized lenses minimize the oriented light that causes glare from reflective surfaces. Polarization helps the wearer see fine details and deep colors and experience reduced eyestrain, eye stress, or fatigue. Impact-resistant lenses are another essential feature in safety eyewear. Given that nearly 2,000 U.S. workers experience job-related eye injuries requiring medical treatment every year, impact-resistant lenses help to prevent or mitigate the potential of eye trauma that can be experienced during work.

Along with these safety eyewear solutions, manufacturers should ensure that the amount and type of lighting is appropriate for workers' needs and for the work tasks performed. Poor lighting can be a safety hazard and a serious concern for workers experiencing loss of vision. Workers can misjudge the position, shape, or speed of an object, all of which can affect work quality. Eyes can be more susceptible to light and eye fatigue with age, so employers should continuously work to evaluate workplace environments, promote optimal lighting conditions, and engage employees to solicit their feedback.

For their part, workers also need take an active role in maintaining their eye health by having regular eye and vision exams. Exams should occur every two years for ages 18-60 and annually for ages over 61, as recommended by the AOA. This frequency can increase, depending on whether at-risk factors are present. By doing so, workers proactively promote their health and safety and the safety of their co-workers.

Focus on Next Steps
Over the coming decades, there will be a major shift in the age of the manufacturing workforce. Manufacturers that are proactive in addressing the health and safety challenges of their employees will be best positioned to support the evolving needs of an aging workforce while maintaining a safe work environment and driving compensation costs down.

To reduce the work-related consequences of any chronic health conditions, including vision impairment, it's critical that employers and workers collaboratively implement new PPE solutions and safety strategies. The result is a healthier, safer, and more productive workplace for all generations.

This article originally appeared in the December 2013 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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