From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

RESEARCH: The Aging Workforce an Emerging Workplace Health and Safety Concern

It is anticipated that the percentage of employees 55 years of age and older will grow at an annual rate of 4.1 percent over the next seven years and present unique ergonomic-related challenges involving worker physical and cognitive capabilities. 

According to a survey article by Silverstein, older workers sustain less frequent but more severe work-related injury/illnesses than younger workers.  As the number of older workers grows, the author expects on-the-job accidents to produce greater:

  • Average severity
  • Disability
  • Cost
  • Risk of fatality

Changes in mental processing, although not usually a barrier to job performance, can potentially compromise problem-solving skills and present difficulties in select occupations such as air traffic control.

To meet this workplace transformation, a multi-pronged approach is suggested that addresses:

  • Physical design of work processes
  • Workplace social environment
  • Employee health and fitness
  • Worker personal and family concerns

The Age Trend   

As baby boomers become older and workers delay their retirement, a significant demographic shift in employee age is occurring.  The median age of the civilian labor force was 35 in 1984, climbed to 40.3 in 2004, and is anticipated to be 41.6 in 2014

This profound change, according to Silverstein, has been fostered by:

  • Employment policies that encourage workers to stay on the job longer due to a shortage of skilled workers (the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers reports that as many as 60 percent of today’s experienced utility workers will retire by 2010)
  • Changes in social security and pension fund programs
  • The need for private health insurance among workers until they reach at least 65 years of age
  • Worker anxiety as defined benefit pensions are shifted to defined contribution programs

A Gallup Survey revealed the percentage of employees planning to put off retirement until after age 62 has increased from 35 percent in 1998 to 55 percent in 2004.

The Solutions

Physical design of work processes

If the principles of universal design (application of ergonomics and human factors engineering) are followed, tasks require less physical demand, have intuitive design, and allow for error tolerance.  In particular, focus should be applied to age related strength/endurance, balance, vision, and hearing.

Workplace social environment
The incidence of injury has been shown to reduce when social concerns are addressed such as work schedules, worker control, and good communication between workers and supervisors.  Also, considering a flexible work schedule when transitioning into retirement is desirable.

Employee health and fitness
Generalized health promotion such as weight loss programs, smoking cessation, fitness activities, and healthy diet habits increase the conditioning of the workforce and prevent/delay the onset of chronic health issues such as cancer, heart disease and diabetes.

Worker personal and family concerns
An awareness and sensitivity to personal needs such as caring for a disabled spouse or riding public transportation due to difficulty driving reduces to chances of poor job performance.

The Bottom Line – How This Applies To Ergonomists

The core principles of ergonomics can be successfully used to address injury and productivity concerns related to the aging workforce.  Employers are aware of programs that could provide solutions for older workers, but, according to an 1998 AARP study, only 18% to 44% are applying them.  The workforce aging demographic development presents a new marketing opportunity for ergonomic consultants and new focus area for company ergonomists.  

Article Title: Meeting the Challenges of an Aging Workforce

Publication: American Journal of Industrial Medicine, 51: 269-280, 2008

Author: M Silverstein

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2008-05-21.