Aging workforce calls for additional workplace precautions

An aging baby boomer workforce will present unique safety challenges for employers.

An aging baby boomer workforce will present unique safety challenges for employers.

As the baby boomer generation continues to age, the workforce population is also aging, presenting increased safety challenges for businesses.

According to a report from Safety Health magazine, by 2022 about 25 percent of all U.S. workers will be 55 years old or older. It's important that employers realize an increasing number of older workers is not a temporary trend. Whereas previous generations were more likely to retire by age 55, members of the baby boomer generation have remained active in the workplace and are expected to continue working into their late 60s.

Speaking with Safety Health, Mitra Toossi, an economist with the Bureau of Labor Statistics, noted that the recent economic recession combined with longer life expectancy and changes to retirement and pension plans have increased the average retirement age to 67 years old. Many workers also simply enjoy their jobs and are in no hurry to retire.

"Older workers are less likely to have severe work injuries, but need more time off to recover when injuries occur."

"Every year since the 1990s, [baby boomers] have been increasing their participation rate," Toossi told the publication. "This is in contrast to all the other age groups where participation rates are declining."

For employers, a more experienced workforce has some advantages. In many ways, older workers contribute to a safer work environment by being more familiar with safety procedures, and are more communicative and less likely to engage in risky behaviors. In fact, data from the BLS shows older workers are less likely to have severe work injuries, though when injuries do occur these workers often need more time to recover. The BLS found that in 2014 the median number of days needed to recover from a workplace injury increased with each age group. Workers ages 16-18 years old averaged four days out of work for an injury, while workers 65 and older averaged 17 days. 

As Safety Health noted, this can mean increased workers compensation costs for employers. In addition to added recovery, it's important for businesses to realize even if older workers are more cautious and follow safety procedures, they will face more challenges to their hearing, vision, balance and respiration than younger workers. Certain injuries, including slips, trips and falls, are also more common in workers 65 and older, the magazine reported.

How to protect older workers
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted, employers need to be aware of the health issues affecting older workers, including chronic conditions. The CDC estimated two chronic conditions, arthritis and hypertension, affect nearly half of the workforce over age 55.

In order to avoid injuries or aggravation of chronic conditions, the CDC recommends adjusting tasks to workers' physical abilities as much as possible, while ensuring workers are able to self-pace their work load and take self-directed breaks when needed. Helping workers of all ages to avoid repetitive tasks and sedentary work will also contribute to a healthier workplace.

"The CDC recommends adjusting tasks to workers' physical abilities as much as possible."

In fact, many of the workplace practices that can prevent injury in older adults will also be beneficial to younger workers. According to the CDC, these practices include promotion of a healthy lifestyle through on-site medical care, tobacco cessation programs, physical activity, health screenings or healthy meal options in on-site cafeterias and eateries. Special attention to trainings and employee skill development can also prevent accidents and help workers learn how to use safety equipment and technologies.

Account for flexibility
As the Society For Human Resource Management noted, employers should also avoid thinking of the needs of employees solely by grouping them together based on age, gender or other characteristics. Instead, a comprehensive safety program will consider the individual worker as well as the specific hazards present in the workplace.

Employers should eliminate or provide safety equipment to minimize any noise, slipping, falling or other physical hazards that are present at the job site. Encouraging workers to vocalize any challenges related to their individual schedules, tasks or work location can also help to address the concerns of each employee. Having a flexible return-to-work process following an injury or health-related problem can encourage self-care and promote a more complete physical recovery before the employee returns to work, reducing the risk of further injury.