Seven ways to create a welcoming workplace for aging workers

While many employers have an aging workforce, few are taking steps to prepare for the challenges and risks that come with the changing demographic, according to a Society for Human Resources and Management (SHRM) survey. No industry is exempt from this shift; in 2014 older workers represented between 23% and 30% of the workforce in all major industries.

In relation to workers’ compensation, it has been well documented that:

  • Older workers suffer fewer injuries, often attributed to experience, knowledge and job commitment
  • When injured, older workers take longer to recover and the workers’ compensation costs are higher
  • Older workers are uniquely prone to certain types of injuries, particularly musculoskeletal disorders, which develop as a result of repetitive, forceful or awkward movements on bones, joints, ligaments and other soft tissues, and falls on the same level, where impact is more likely to cause injury
  • The prevalence of co-morbidities such as high blood pressure and diabetes, tends to increase with age, complicating recovery from injuries

In addition to the higher workers’ compensation costs, employers also face the possibility of OSHA fines related to injuries of older workers. OSHA’s change in reporting requirements amending the regulation to require employers to report all work-related in-patient hospitalizations, as well as amputations and losses of an eye, within 24 hours (previously, the threshold was three or more employees), means more injuries will be reported. While it’s highly unlikely three workers would be hospitalized at the same time for an ergonomics issue, it is possible one will be, with a good chance that it will be an older worker. Although OSHA has been unsuccessful in adopting an ergonomics standard it does enforce ergonomics aggressively through its general duty clause. OSHA uses its Ergonomics Guidance document to justify general duty fines. While the guidance is not law, it is considered evidence that the employer should have known about the hazard. For example, OSHA cited Hannaford Supermarkets in 2013 and 2014, for failing to keep its Schodack Landing, New York, and South Portland, Maine, distribution centers free from recognized hazards likely to cause MSDs. Hannaford initially contested the citations, however, it reached a settlement in which the company agrees to institute ongoing and effective worker protection safeguards at both distribution centers.

OSHA’s current ergonomic inspection plan combines:

  • 2015 Healthcare Initiative (expands on the 2011 Nursing Home National Emphasis Program)
  • Inspection of workplaces in industries with significant number of injuries related to ergonomic hazards
  • Responding to employee complaints

Industries with specific OSHA guidelines include: shipyards, poultry processing, retail grocery stores, nursing homes and meatpacking plants.

Another area of OSHA focus related to older workers is occupational hearing loss. Employers are required to monitor employees for occupational hearing loss and implement a hearing protection program, if necessary. Although hearing tends to degenerate in older workers, the age correction value ends at age 60.

What employers should do

The physiological and biological changes that occur with aging can lead to reduced balance and reaction time, visual deficits, less strength, endurance and flexibility, loss of hearing, susceptibility to sprain or strain injuries and soft tissue injuries, and so on. Yet, while it’s important to understand the changes that occur with aging, all older workers are not the same and their limitations should not be pre-judged.

To reap the benefits of the intellectual capital and commitment that is characteristic of older workers and prevent injuries, employers need to make an age-friendly workplace. Tasks should be matched to the abilities of the individual worker and workers should have a say and input into the accommodation. It can be tricky to get older workers to recognize declining abilities, but training supervisors to focus on the whole person, team work strategies to focus on aging-related issues, and an overall supportive work environment are key.

Steps that employers can take:

  1. Identify the workplace conditions that cause MSDs
    • Review and analyze illness and injury records
    • Analyze job duties and work tasks
    • Visit job sites and manage noise, slip/trip and other physical hazards
    • Review OSHA guidelines and industry information
    • Solicit employee input
  2. Determine best approach to minimize risks
    • There are many options, including work station modifications, lift assistance, better lighting, less noise, wellness and stretching programs, restructured job duties, shortening task durations, flexible working hours and so on
  3. Remember that ergonomics requires training
    • Ergonomics is personal – no one size fits all approach. Workers should be evaluated and trained how to use and how to adjust equipment. It’s about designing the work environment to fit the individual worker’s needs
  4. Facilitate early return to work
    • Research from Liberty Mutual showed that training supervisors to facilitate return-to-work and oversee ergonomics improvements resulted in a 27 percent decrease in lost time due to chronic issues
  5. Address and manage comorbidities
    • Be sure the claims adjuster is aware of existing comorbidities
    • Utilize occupational physicians who understand your workplace
  6. Promote a healthy workforce
    • Wellness programs
    • Legally implement Physical Capability Testing Physical Capability Evaluations (PCE™) to measure an individual’s ability to perform a particular job function
  7. Recognize psychosocial risk factors
    • An added set of psychosocial risk factors can come into play with older workers. A declining sense of self-worth, fear of job loss, resistance to job redesign, uneasiness with technological advantages, resentment of younger workers, loss of life companions and inadequate home support are some of the common issues.
    • The perception of the level of support in the work environment and the worker’s sense of value to the workplace are key factors in recovery and retention.

Implementing these seven steps will go a long way to maintaining a successful work environment for older workers.

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Author | Speaker | Certified Risk Manager | Certified Work Comp Advisor

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