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Workplace safety for older employees means workplace safety for all

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It's a good idea to evaluate the workplace with aging workers in mind, and there are steps that can help address the physical and mental changes that come with age. But it's best if changes to the workplace help all employees.

One example would be putting in a hoist or some other type of lifting device to replace lifting moderately heavy objects by hand. This would help older workers to continue doing that job, and it also would reduce the risk of back and shoulder injuries for all workers. It also would make it more likely that an injured worker of any age would be able to return more quickly to that job.

Another example would be allowing more individual control over lighting where jobs have high visual demands. Older workers need more light, but they're also more sensitive to glare, so they need to be able to position the light in just the right place. But having that ability also would help younger workers to see their work more clearly.

Slips, trips and falls are also things that deserve more attention. With age comes decreased vision, changes in balance, slower reflexes and reduced leg strength, all of which makes it more likely that older workers will fall if anything upsets their balance.

The same types of falls are more likely to cause serious injuries, or even fatalities, among older workers when compared with younger ones. Keeping areas free of trip hazards, cleaning up spills quickly, using nonskid floor surfaces, designing good stairways, and finding alternatives to ladders for accessing high areas are all steps that can reduce falls among workers of all ages.

One of the reasons you want workplace changes to support workers at every age is that we are all part of the aging workforce, not just older workers. The reality is that, once we stop growing, we start aging.

Many of our cognitive and physical capabilities have peaked by the time we're in our 20s and early 30s. Rates for some types of workplace injuries peak among workers in their 30s, and then decrease in older workers. It is true that older workers take longer to recover from injuries and illnesses, and they may need some extra attention when it comes time to return to work. But a lot of the steps you might take to return an older worker to his or her job also would help to bring a younger worker back that much faster.

Despite the physical and mental changes that happen with age, it hasn't been shown in most cases to negatively impact the work performance of older employees. In most jobs, experience is at least as important as speed of movement or the ability to process information rapidly.

You still may see labor shortages in some industries due to the aging workforce, despite continued high unemployment in general. Some specific industries or occupations can have trouble finding people with the right level of training and experience to fill positions that are being vacated by retiring workers. This might be especially true in physically demanding jobs where it's difficult for older workers to want to stay on, even when employers are offering incentives.

Full-time participation in the labor force among people age 65 and older is projected to increase by an even higher percentage than was predicted just a few years ago, when it was thought that most older workers would choose part-time or seasonal work.

I've seen some discussion of this in the safety community, and even more among ergonomists. Just about every national ergonomics conference for the past several years has included at least one session on the aging workforce. Because our main goal is to design the workplace around the capabilities and limitations of the workers, ergonomists such as myself feel we have the right types of skills and expertise to help design an “age-friendly” workplace.

Ergonomists also understand the importance of individual differences among workers. On average, physical strength and visual acuity decline with age, but there are always going to be older workers who can outwork their younger counterparts, or who still have perfect eyesight.

Rick Goggins is senior ergonomist for the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries, where he has been working for 16 years. Prior to that, he worked with Hughes Space & Communications Co.'s safety, health and environmental affairs group in El Segundo, Calif. He has a master's degree in ergonomics from the University of Southern California and is a Certified Professional Ergonomist.

Rick Goggins
Ergonomist
DOSH, Dept. of Labor and Industries
(360) 902-5450
rick.goggins@lni.wa.gov
www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/Topics/Ergonomics/default.asp