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June 23, 2021

How an aging workforce impacts safety management

Anthony Way

Successful organizations pay attention to safety. Even more so, they manage safety and consider changes in the operations, equipment and workforce and adjust their safety strategies and efforts accordingly. 

The makeup of the working population is changing. This change includes that more “older” workers remain on the job longer and even more are joining the workforce. The change is influenced from many areas including recent economic conditions. Much has been written about the value of older workers including increased loyalty, application of life and work experience to an organization and their ability to mentor younger workers. 

As 76 million baby boomers continue to grow older, they’re predicted to stay or return to the workforce. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), the number of workers ages 55 and older will increase to 73 percent by 2020, while the number of younger workers will only grow 5 percent. Not only that, the BLS also reports that between 1977 and 2007, the employment of workers 65 and older increased 101 percent while total employment only increased 59 percent. For men over 65, the increase was 75 percent and for women it was as high as 147 percent. The BLS expects this growth in aging workers to continue through the next decade with workers over the age of 75 predicted to rise more than 80 percent.

Older workers tend to have a lower injury frequency rate. At the same time, resulting injuries can be more serious and recovery times are often longer. Potential safety concerns with older workers include shorter memory, slower reaction time, balance issues, hearing and vision limitation among others. Susceptible injuries include falls, strains and repetitive motion injuries.

Knowing these statistics, how should an organization’s safety management program respond to this workforce trend? Manufacturers can begin by evaluating their workforce and becoming proactive using our tips:

  • Evaluate physical demands of the job and adjust according to the workers ability. A job safety analysis can be a great tool to identify potential hazards and identify how to minimize risk.
  • Rotate job tasks in order to manage physical demands. This can limit repetitive motions, vary the muscle groups needed to perform tasks during the day and can improve attention span.
  • Minimize heavy lifting requirements or provide improved ergonomic assistance such as adjustable height work tables for loading of boxes, etc. Workers using heavier tools can often be improved my weight limiters and other devices.
  • Focus on slip, trip and fall issues in the workplace as these accidents represent a high percentage of injuries to older workers. Eliminate or provide warning for change in elevations in walking and working surfaces. Add slip resistant coatings to ramps and stairs. Provide hand rails along walking ramps and aisles. 
  • Provide a high level of illumination in work and walking areas.
  • Establish a wellness program that promotes appropriate warm up, stretching, nutrition throughout the work day.

And let us not overlook the obvious – regular communication with your workforce of all ages is critical in order to understand their needs, challenges and ideas for continuous safety improvement at your workplace.