Ergonomics done right.®
June 20th, 2014

Managing the Safety of the Aging Workforce

by Blake McGowan, CPE

Blake 1.5x2In 2009, older workers (55 and over) represented almost 20% of the U.S. workforce. This group is the nation’s fastest growing segment of the workforce (Toossi, 2009). The Bureau of Labor Statistic (BLS) projects, for the period between 2006 and 2016, that there will be an 84% increase in workers age 75 and over, an 83% increase in workers between the ages of 65 and 74, and a 37% increase in workers between ages of 55 and 64.  In order to optimize the safety and performance of our most experienced employees, we must understand the primary safety concerns as we age and the physiological changes that contribute to these concerns.

Here are three primary safety issues that occur as we age:

  1. Slips, trips, and falls (“fall on same level” and “fall to lower level”) account for 27% of all disabling injuries and have annual costs of $13.7 billion. Each year, 30% of people age 65 and over will sustain a fall, of which 10% will result in a serious injury. In addition, 50% to 80% of incidents involve people age 65 and over.
  2. Overexertion (excessive lifting, pulling, pushing, carrying) accounts for 27% of all disabling injuries and the associated annual costs are $16.6 billion. As we age, strength capabilities and endurance decrease by up to 20%. Workers between the ages of 55 and 64 have injury and illness rates (117.9 injuries and illnesses per 10,000 full-time workers) above the national average. Workers age 65 and over spend more median days away from work than their younger counterparts, requiring a median of 14 days to recuperate before returning to work.
  3. Shift work, longer shifts, and demanding shift schedules are associated with a higher risk of occupational injury. Approximately 7% of workplace injuries can be attributed to shift work. In addition, older workers may be at greater risk for both injury and accidents on the night shift.

The primary physiological (performance) changes that occur as we age that largely account for these primary safety concerns include changes to visual perception, sensory perception, motor control, strength, information processing, and cardiovascular capacity.  Identifying the primary safety concerns of the aging workforce and the physiological changes that lead to these concerns will enable the development and implementation of meaningful and targeted controls to minimize risk.