Keep Older Workers Safe with These 10 Tips

By Roy Maurer Dec 8, 2014
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A​ccording to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), older workers tend to experience fewer workplace injuries than their younger colleagues, perhaps due to increased caution and experience, but when accidents do occur, older workers often require more time to heal, and incidents are more likely to be fatal. These outcomes reflect the need for employers to be mindful of how best to keep older workers protected from on-the-job hazards.

Twenty percent of American workers will be over age 65 by 2015 and 25 percent will be over age 55 by 2020, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Common chronic conditions such as arthritis and hypertension may affect older workers’ safety at work, NIOSH said on a webpage dedicated to raising awareness of the health and safety issues affecting an aging workforce.

The webpage is part of NIOSH’s Total Worker Health strategy to integrate health promotion and workplace safety. “Many effective workplace solutions are simple, don’t have to cost very much, and can have large benefits if implemented properly with worker input and support throughout all levels of management,” NIOSH said.

10 Tips for Healthy Aging Workers

The agency provided the following 10 recommendations to help aging workers remain safe and healthy and manage chronic conditions:

  • Prioritize workplace flexibility. To the extent possible, give workers a say in their schedule, work conditions, work organization, work location and work tasks, NIOSH said.
  • Match tasks to abilities. Use self-paced work, self-directed rest breaks and less-repetitive tasks.
  • Avoid prolonged sedentary work. Prolonged sedentary work is bad for workers at every age, the agency said. Consider sit/stand workstations and walking workstations for workers who traditionally sit all day. Provide onsite physical activity opportunities or connections to low-cost community options.
  • Manage noise, slip/trip and other physical hazards.
  • Provide and design ergo-friendly work environments, including workstations, tools, floor surfaces, adjustable seating, better illumination where needed, and screens and surfaces with less glare.
  • Use teams and teamwork strategies for aging-associated problem solving.
  • Provide health promotion and lifestyle interventions including physical activity, healthy meal options, tobacco cessation assistance, risk-factor reduction and screenings, coaching, and onsite medical care. Accommodate medical self-care in the workplace and time away for health visits, NIOSH said.
  • Invest in training and building worker skills and competencies at all age levels.
  • Proactively manage reasonable accommodations and the return-to-work process after illness or injury absences.
  • Require aging workforce management skills training for supervisors. Include a focus on the most effective ways to manage a multigenerational workplace.

Understanding Hazard Control Is Key

“You can boil these strategies down into the key risk treatment for older workers,” said Dan Markiewicz, an environmental health and safety consultant and president of Markiewicz & Associates in Toledo, Ohio. “Employers must voluntarily provide reasonable safety accommodations, using hierarchy of controls, on an individual basis to address normal conditions of aging.”

Reasonable accommodations for older workers are beyond Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements and old-age conditions often do not rise to the level of impairments considered disabilities required to be addressed within the Americans with Disabilities Act Amendments Act (ADAAA), said Markiewicz.

“Reasonable safety accommodations … must be tailored to individual needs” rather than to a class of worker, he added. “Many employers believe safety accommodation means transferring a worker to a desk job or providing light-duty work. This happens because HR managers, who may not be familiar with the principle of the hierarchy of controls, establish accommodations,” he said. The hierarchy of controls system used to minimize or eliminate exposure to occupational hazards is a widely accepted system promoted by numerous safety organizations and includes, in order of decreasing effectiveness:

  • Eliminating hazards.
  • Substituting nonhazards for hazards.
  • Isolating workers from hazards using engineering controls.
  • Changing work practices using administrative controls.
  • Employing personal protective equipment.

Employers should “understand the normal physiological and biological changes that occur with aging but not prejudge an older worker’s abilities and willingness to work,” said Markiewicz. The older workers themselves should initiate the process to implement accommodations, he added.

Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Follow him @SHRMRoy

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