With age comes wisdom and experience. However, getting older also brings the inevitable decline in physical and sometimes mental agility. This change can present serious challenges for the older worker. The Department of Labor’s workplace statistics for 2004 indicate workers 64 and older had the lowest number of workplace injuries, however, the fatality rate for workers 55 and older rose by 10 percent.
How is it possible for older workers to have fewer job-related injuries than other age groups, but still experience increased fatalities? The answer to that question lies in the body’s reaction to the aging process. While older workers may have fewer accidents, when they get injured their injuries are often more severe. A longer healing process allows more time for complications that can lead to death.
However, it isn’t only the possibility of older worker fatalities that must concern employers. The type of injuries the maturing employee suffers is also significant. Older workers tend to report more back injuries than their younger counterparts. In addition, a number of workplace injuries are the result of performing the same tasks over and over. Repetitive motion injuries develop over time. Because of this, older workers report more musculoskeletal injuries since they’ve had more time for these types of injuries to develop.
As the work force continues to age, it is important for employers to recognize these facts and make accommodations that will allow older employees to remain safe and healthy. The American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) recommends the following environmental changes to keep maturing workers safe:
· Improve illumination and add color contrast.
· Eliminate heavy lifts, elevated work from ladders and long reaches.
· Design work floors and platforms with smooth and solid decking while still allowing some cushioning.
· Reduce static standing time.
· Remove clutter from control panels and computer screens and use large video displays.
· Reduce noise levels.
· Install chain actuators for valve hand wheels, damper levers or other similar control devices, which bring the control manipulation to ground level and help reduce falls.
· Install skid-resistant material for flooring and especially for staircase treads.
· Install shallow-angle stairways in place of ladders when space permits and where any daily, elevated access is needed to complete a task.
· Utilize hands-free, volume-adjustable telephone equipment.
· Increase task rotation, which will reduce the strain of repetitive motion.
· Lower sound system pitches, such as on alarm systems, as they tend to be easier to hear.
· Lengthen time requirements between steps in a task.
· Increase the time allowed for making decisions.
· Consider necessary reaction time when assigning older workers to tasks.
· Provide opportunities for practice and time to develop task familiarity.
Bear in mind that even though these changes are ostensibly being made for the older worker, they will actually have a beneficial effect on the health and safety of the entire work force population.