Open your eyes to the aging workforce

By 2014, the number of people aged 55 and older is expected to increase by 49% while the number of younger workers will grow by only 2.9%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This older population will represent 21% of the civilian labor force, up from 15% in 2004. While companies need to figure out how to attract a new generation of manufacturing employees prepared for 21st century jobs, busi...

By Laura Brown, W.W. Grainger, Inc. October 15, 2007

By 2014, the number of people aged 55 and older is expected to increase by 49% while the number of younger workers will grow by only 2.9%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. This older population will represent 21% of the civilian labor force, up from 15% in 2004.

While companies need to figure out how to attract a new generation of manufacturing employees prepared for 21st century jobs, business leaders also need to find ways to accommodate the older population. From a safety perspective, studies documented by the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine indicate older workers have a lower risk of nonfatal occupational injuries than that of their younger colleagues, possibly due to increased experience, safer behavior and less physically demanding jobs.

Unfortunately, while the incidence of non-fatal occupational injuries across all industries was lower with older employees, the median days away from work due to an injury was much higher for older workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Across all age groups the median lost time was seven days, while workers 45 and older averaged 11 to 12 days.

As recently as 2005, workers 45 and older represented 51% of all workplace fatalities. Interestingly, older workers’ fatalities were more likely to be caused by falls than their younger counterparts, who were more likely to die from exposure to harmful substances.

The National Health Interview Survey in 1994 showed that the percentage of workers with work-limiting disabilities increases with age. The increased prevalence of impairments among older workers and the growth of the older workforce will increase the number of workers who bring impairments into the workforce with them. This is of concern because of research suggesting that workers with a broad spectrum of impairments are at higher risk for occupational injuries, said the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine study.

Effects of aging on the workforce

While every person reacts to aging differently, what general changes can plant managers expect from an aging workforce? According to Marji Hajic, occupational therapist and a certified hand therapist, a variety of physical changes can start to affect workers in their 40s, with varying changes occurring through their retirement.

Vision problems may be one of the first issues to strike workers in their 40s. Their pupils may react more slowly to changes in darkness and light while the eye becomes more sensitive to glare and less adaptable in the dark. It may also become more difficult to focus and read smaller print — due to increased nearsightedness — depth perception may decrease and visual field and peripheral vision may become more limited. Finally, distinguishing between pastel colors, especially blues and greens, may become more difficult.

Older workers also may develop hearing problems in their 40s and 50s, especially those that have been exposed to high levels of sound throughout their lives. Hearing problems may include the loss of sharpness of sounds and the ability to hear certain sound pitches, while finding it more difficult to hear others speak, especially in noisy environments. The inner ear, responsible for balance, can also be affected with changes in the auditory system. As balance and gait are affected by these changes, there is an increased risk for falls.

Once workers reach their 60s, their entire bodies may begin to undergo a number of changes. For example, lean body mass generally decreases as we get older, and seniors may experience a 15% to 20% loss in muscle strength as compared to when they were in their 20s. Osteoporosis places employees at higher risk of fractures during accidents, and the hand may feel stiffer, impairing the employee’s ability to perform fine motor activities with their hands.

In addition, reflexes begin to slow down or may be lost as the nervous system loses cells and weight and transmits nerve impulses more slowly. Also, skin becomes thinner and less elastic, and the amount of subcutaneous fat is reduced. This can cause difficulties in body temperature regulation, sometimes resulting in an uncomfortable working environment. Finally, even quality of sleep is more readily affected by changes in work schedule as older workers are slower to react to changes in their regular routines.

A National Association of Manufacturers report conducted in conjunction with Deloitte & Touche predicts that manufacturers will need as many as 10 million new skilled workers by 2020. NAM also states that, although the average retirement age is creeping up, demographers say there still will not be enough qualified members of the next generation to pick up the slack. It is therefore imperative to do everything possible to keep your current workforce safe and productive so they can contribute while the next generation of workers starts their careers.

Ensuring productivity regardless of age

According to Hajic, a number of simple solutions can be implemented to facilitate age-related changes that workers may face. To accommodate visual changes, increase area lighting and use task lighting with desk lamps wherever possible.

To reduce glare in the workplace, light sources should be perpendicular to the work area or computer screen rather than directly in front of or behind it. Also, use indirect lighting or ergonomic equipment such as glare-reducing screens on computers; equip them with the largest sized high-resolution monitors that the work area will accommodate. Clean computer screens regularly and adjust the screen color and contrast to make text as legible as possible. Additionally, be particularly aware of neck and shoulder posture of employees using bifocals.

For written communications, consider increasing the size of fonts used while offering magnifiers or magnifying glasses to those who need them. Also encourage employees to take frequent breaks when reading, computing and performing work that requires intense visual focus. This allows the eyes to rest.

Finally, use brighter colors to draw focus and attention whenever possible, including safety signs and symbols that provide direction in case of an emergency.

Reduce background noise to accommodate those with age-related hearing loss. Whenever possible, contain high-noise equipment in insulated cabinets or housings to dampen the noise. Also encourage the use of protective ear equipment in high-noise areas to prevent further loss, while using equipment with adjustable sound levels, such as phones with amplified audio output. Use visual cues in place of auditory cues when possible, such as phones that light when ringing or flashing computer prompts.

It also may be necessary to accommodate age-related changes in muscle strength, joint function and flexibility and speed of reflexes and balance. Make these changes by modifying the work load, reducing the amount of strength and endurance needed for tasks. Consider maximum lifting capacity 20% less than for a younger worker. Accomplish this through smaller load sizes, the use of mechanical lift assist or power tools, frequent breaks and job rotation through challenging tasks.

Additionally, help workers maintain proper posture by avoiding activities in static, uncomfortable positions. Arrange the workstation to avoid overhead or bent-over work; set it up so work can be performed directly in front of and in close proximity to the body. Also consider increasing the size of handles and levers, and replace small buttons and controls with larger ones whenever possible. Use textured and/or knobbed handles to improve gripping ability, and encourage frequent stretch breaks. Avoid exposing older workers to extreme temperatures.

Regardless of age, older workers may become more productive with a few small changes to their overall work environment. Eliminate general clutter in the work environment to reduce the potential for falls, and make sure all walkways are well-illuminated and hazard-free. It may also be beneficial to minimize changes in work schedules to improve employees’ quality of sleep, with priority for day shifts given to older workers.

American Society of Safety Engineers president Jack H. Dobson, Jr. said: “Businesses must act now to accommodate and provide a safer work environment for the aging worker, a valuable and experienced group, or their bottom line will be impacted negatively. There are easy and economical ways to do this that in the long run will save time, increase output and contribute positively to the business.”

Author Information

Laura Brown is the vice-president of marketing at W.W. Grainger, Inc., where she is responsible for Grainger Industrial Supply’s marketing organization, including market and customer research and analysis, channel & segment marketing, customer branding, online marketing and marketing communications.