By 2020, an estimated 42% of the workforce will be over 55 years of age, with two-thirds of people planning to work beyond age 65. As workers age, they experience physical changes that can impact their ability to work safely and productively. The more employers understand these changes, the better they can protect their aging workforce from overexertion injuries and preserve this highly skilled labor pool.
The Good and the Bad: Changes That Occur With Age
Aging is inevitable; from the time we are born, our bodies start aging. Around age 45-50 is when we start to see significant changes that can impact our workability, including:
- Decreases in physical and musculoskeletal health. This includes decreases in strength, muscle mass, flexibility, manual dexterity, and fitness level.
- Decreases in cardiovascular health. This includes reduced oxygen exchange, aerobic capacity and endurance, and increases in blood pressure.
- Deficits in the nervous system. This includes changes to our sensory and perception (i.e., hearing and vision), mental processing, memory, balance, postural steadiness, and reaction time.
- Increases in chronic diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer.
However, with age also comes knowledge and experience that younger generations do not yet possess. Many of the maritime industry’s older employees are results-driven, people-oriented, proven hard workers. Workers over 50 are a “valuable resource for training and mentoring, an important source of institutional knowledge, and offer more knowledge, wisdom and life experience”1.
Many proactive organizations are tapping into the older talent pool by extending their career models, creating new development paths, inventing roles to accommodate workers in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, and implementing workplace changes to help older employees remain in the workforce1. For instance, BMW increased productivity on an assembly line staffed with older workers by seven percent in just three months through simple changes such as providing cushioned floors and adjustable work benches2. Home Depot and other organizations are engaging older workers with flexible scheduling options and part-time positions3. Further, as many as one-third of retirees are willing to work part-time, organizations are starting to offer opportunities to leverage this group on a contingent or gig basis4.
Overexertion Injuries: Areas of Focus
The primary areas of focus for overexertion injuries for an aging population are:
- Awkward working postures. Postures such as back bending, overhead work, kneeling or crawling can impact the aging back, shoulders and knees. Redesigning the work and/or implementing simple solutions to minimize or eliminate time in these awkward postures will significantly reduce fatigue, or aggravation of pre-existing medical conditions.
- Forceful Exertions. Older workers are still strong, but when high force exertions – such as lifting, pushing, pulling, or gripping – are performed in awkward positions and/or done repetitively over the day, the muscles can become fatigued quicker. Research has shown that the tolerance of the spine and discs to withstand forces from lifting is about two-thirds less for a 50-year old vs. a 20-year old.
- Vision. Low light levels, glare, shadows, signs or instructions with small fonts make it hard to see and read. A 60-year old requires 3 times more light to read than a 20-year old.
- Balance. Tasks that require balance – such as climbing ladders, stepping over obstructions, or uneven work surfaces (especially while carrying tools and materials) – can lead to loss of balance and a slip, trip or fall. Reducing clutter and providing even walking and working surfaces, along with stairs and work platforms (instead of ladders), can minimize the risks from loss of balance.
Solutions to Protect Aging Workers
The following are some simple and effective solutions to protect a worker of any age, but can have particular benefit to older workers.
- Develop a plan and strategy. Proactively address aging workforce characteristics and the areas of focus listed in this article. This will mitigate potential risks before they negatively impact the company. Consider using a risk assessment methodology that includes aging risk factors and characteristics to conduct a baseline risk assessment to establish workability and appropriate solutions for prevention (outlined in the rest of this list).
- Provide good lighting and reduce glare. Increase light levels in poorly-lit areas, especially those that require climbing, stepping over obstructions or uneven work surfaces, such as stairwells, ladder access, work surface transitions, and navigating on piers or through a ship. Reduce glare on monitors and equipment screenings. Provide signs and work instructions with large fonts that are simple and easy to read and have a high color contrast (i.e., black font on a white background).
- Raise the work. Raising the work off the ground or floor and placing it between mid-thigh and chest height reduces the risk of a back or knee injury, improves efficiency by eliminating non-valued added bending and squatting motions, and accommodates an aging workforce that may have pre-existing back or knee issues. Back bending and reaching can reduce your lifting capability by 80% when the reach increases from 10” to 30”5 (see fig. 1). Simple solutions to raise the work include: stacked pallets, saw horses, stands, benches, racks, carts, or lift tables. When low-level work cannot be raised, provide knee pads, kneeling mats or stools to reduce strain on the employees’ knees.
- Raise the worker. When performing work overhead, raise the employee by using a step ladder, platform, staging or condo-lift to keep their hands below shoulder height. Working with the hands overhead reduces your shoulder strength by 40% due to the biomechanical disadvantage of the body position5 (see fig. 1). For long-duration jobs, use platforms or staging (instead of a ladder) to provide a work surface that evenly supports both feet and the whole body. This will help to reduce foot, knee and back discomfort and minimize the impacts on balance and postural steadiness from working on a ladder. Another solution using this concept is to raise the employee off their hands and knees by using stand-up tools with long reach handles.
- Rotate Jobs. Reduce fatigue from repetitive motions, awkward postures and forceful exertions by incorporating job rotation schedules that allow for varied working postures and techniques. A baseline risk assessment of job demands is needed to identify the best job rotation schedule. One resource that may help you conduct a risk assessment is this infographic, which outlines the five main ergonomic risk factors to consider when evaluating a job’s potential for injury.
- Health and Wellness Programs. Encourage employees to participate in health and wellness programs that focus on joint health, healthy and joint sparing movement patterns, strengthening and balancing exercise, nutrition and sleep.
Traditional assumptions about learning, career progression and retirement are no longer accurate or sustainable. Rethinking workforce strategies and implementing proactive solutions that accommodate multiple generations are needed for companies to stay competitive in a world of unprecedented longevity demands. Prevention is the key. Take the time to evaluate your workplace and implement some of the solutions above.
This article originally appeared in the Longshore Insider on August 12, 2019.
- The longevity dividend: Work in an era of 100-year lives. 2018 Global Human Capital Trends. Deloitte Insights. March 2018.
- David Champion, “How BMW Is planning for an aging workforce,” Harvard Business Review, March 11, 2009.
- Steven Greenhouse, “The age premium: Retaining older workers,” New York Times, May 14, 2014.
- Elaine Pofeldt, “Why older workers are embracing the gig economy,” Forbes, August 30, 2017.
- Zavitz, Ben. Three Proven Techniques to Prevent Shoulder and Back Injuries. Longshore Insider, June 2019.