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The established safety practices of matching individual capabilities to job tasks and designing workstations and tools to fit workers are even more crucial for reducing injuries as the nation’s workforce ages.
Assigning the right employees to specific jobs with safety in mind helps reduce injuries regardless of an employee’s age, experts say.
But mature employees are more likely to experience decreasing physical capabilities, aging musculoskeletal systems, the onset of arthritis, eyesight deterioration, slower reaction times and longer durations for recovering from injuries, several sources said.
Those conditions heighten the need to match both jobs and work environments to the worker, the experts said.
“The traditional approach of designing workstations and tools to be more ergonomic absolutely is (important), but when you talk about the aging workforce, it’s even that much more important because from a physiological standpoint bodies start to change whether it’s your vision or strength or cardiovascular system,” said Winnie Ip, director of consulting for Humantech Inc., an ergonomics consulting company in Ann Arbor, Mich. “So as you get older, it becomes more and more important that we make sure that we design workstations and equipment to fit the person.”
Yet generalizing about aging employee capabilities is also a mistake, because as the population ages there is greater variation among individuals, said Dr. Glenn Pransky, a medical doctor and director of the Center for Disability Research at Liberty Mutual Group Inc.’s Research Institute for Safety in Hopkinton, Mass.
While solid research data points to certain deteriorating abilities related to aging, such as decreasing eyesight or hearing, other attributes often associated with aging vary among individuals, Dr. Pransky said.
Some older workers may take care of themselves and are more physically fit than they were in their younger years, for example. Meanwhile, others may be “just hanging on,” barely able to meet their job’s physical demands, Dr. Pransky explained.
Additionally, many mature workers have learned from experience how to perform a job safely, while others may be suffering from deterioration caused by years of repeating similar motions, several sources said.
The variations are why individual assessments of whether a worker fits the tasks at hand are crucial, Dr. Pransky added.
“You really don’t want to overgeneralize and end up making mistakes where you are somehow limiting folks or discriminating and doing this without a strong scientific basis or individual assessments,” Dr. Pransky said.
“The research doesn’t point so much to age-specific issues other than vision or hearing, but it more points to the fact that, like any worker, you have to think of the match between the person and the job,” Dr. Pransky continued. “A mismatch will be a problem whether person is young or old.”
Still, research results released in January by Boca Raton, Fla.-based NCCI Holdings Inc. shows that older workers—those ages 45 to 64—tend to suffer more rotator cuff and knee injuries than their younger counterparts, who suffer more back and ankle sprains.
That shows there is a need for employers to tailor specific loss prevention measures to fit employee demographics while assuring that the job is an appropriate match for the individual performing the task, experts said.
“If there is a particular activity within an employer that is likely to cause, or already caused, rotator cuff or knee injuries, and there are modifications that can be made, such as adjusting the weight load or movement,” it is important to do so, said Chris Cunniff, senior vp and workers compensation product manager for Liberty Mutual in Boston.
One effective measure for matching workers to jobs is to assure that supervisors are continually aware of how their workers are handling specific tasks and whether those tasks are causing injuries, sources said. That requires good communication between managers and workers.
Employers need an “aging productively management plan,” said Dr. John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.
With an aging workforce employers need to look at how to help their employees remain productive and orient work tasks so they are not “increasing the likelihood of having an injury that will put an older worker out for a while,” Dr. Howard said.
In fact, some of the most important measures employers can take to ensure the health and productivity of their workforce is to understand that physical capacity decreases with age and understand how to match the abilities of workers with jobs, Dr. Howard said.