I’m aging. That’s a good thing, my mother used to say, considering the alternatives. Until we find that fountain of youth, our bodies begin to follow a negative trajectory where our strength decreases, our flexibility is reduced, balance and coordination decline, we become more susceptible to injury and take longer to heal. It’s too depressing for me to even think about where the peak of that curve lies.
But in the workplace, characteristics of an aging population need to be considered in the design of tasks, tools and work areas. As people live longer, delay retirement for personal or financial reasons, and as the “baby boomer” bulge moves through our demographic, the percentage of older workers is increasing.
Ergonomics looks at fitting the individual to the job, and when designing for large numbers of people, limiting criteria are used as guideposts. Most of us have heard the mantra, “Design so that the shortest person can reach and so the tallest person will clear.” In the field of aging, one of the similar concepts referred to is “universal design.” One example frequently mentioned is the lever style door handle: if someone with severe arthritis can open this style of handle more easily than a ball shaped knob, then someone without arthritis can probably open it more easily (even occasionally with their elbow when carrying too much stuff in their arms).
Factors such as physical force and coordination clearly fall into this universal design scheme. Reducing the force needed to do a job means that more people will be able to do that job, whether young or old, weak or strong, male or female, and may even include individuals with special physical limitations. Making a job easier to do not only means that klutzes like me can do the task, but also typically reduces training needs, reduces errors and increases productivity. This is consistent with the Japanese concept of “kaizen,” and can fit well with any quality or Six Sigma program.
Of course, not all accommodations are universal. One the key differences between workers separated by many years is in the area of vision. Older workers typically need more light and higher contrast to perform visual tasks. Older eyes are also more susceptible to glare. While good contrast and glare control are appreciated by most workers, some younger workers find increased lighting levels too high. This can especially be an issue when the work involves computers or precision tasks, and when workers do not have individual control of their workspace lighting.
Unfortunately, it is the limitations of older workers that are often stressed. For human resource managers, older workers may be associated with higher pay brackets and higher health care premiums.
One thing older workers also bring is experience. Seasoned workers can see how far things have come, as well as what has been tried before. This perspective can help decipher why something has been always been done in a certain manner, and prevent the proverbial reinvention of the wheel. Workers with a diverse employment history may bring ideas from other processes to the table and be invaluable members of a problem solving team.
Senior employees may also carry a reservoir of untapped information and skills. For example, in many high turnover industrial positions, there are usually a large number of individuals who remain on the job for a short period of time, and a few who have worked there for a very long time
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2003-11-01.