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Keys to managing an aging workforce

In an effort to get in touch with the older demographic, automaker Nissan has been using “aging” suits for over ten years to simulate the experience of getting in and out of cars as well as driving them. Casts simulate arthritic pain, a raised front-toe design mimics balance difficulties, belts add 2 to 10 inches to the waistline, and cataract goggles show designers what it is like to drive with failing eyesight.

While manufacturers have recognized the need to accommodate the older consumer, employers are often slow to acknowledge the importance of adapting jobs to the changing physical capabilities of older workers. Gregory Petty, professor of health and safety programs for the University of Tennessee conducts extensive research on the aging workforce and acknowledges that employers may need to be more proactive with older workers, but the effort is worthwhile for this experienced, hardworking population.

While older workers have fewer injuries, they have the highest rates of falls, fractures and incidents that cause injury to multiple body parts, according to BLS statistics. They also have higher fatal injury rates, according to the National Safety Council.

Although physical limitations of older workers may be partly to blame, Petty cites a failure in many workplace safety programs to reach older workers effectively. There is a tendency to have one-size fits all strategy that does not fit the needs of the older worker.

There are specific things an organization can do to improve the safety, health and productivity of the older workforce. The following checklist was published in the July 2008 edition of the National Safety Council’s Safety + Health:

Checklist: Adapting to an aging workforce

Older workers may have more problems focusing on small text or fine detail, adapting to darkness, seeing in areas without good lighting, distinguishing between close color variations, and dealing with glare.

Screen for vision to detect problems and prevent existing problems from getting worse.
Provide adequate levels of light. Adjustable but consistent lighting throughout the workplace will help improve vision for older workers.

Provide magnification tools. Most computers are now equipped with magnification tools to make screen text more readable.
Between 25 percent and 40 percent of adults older than 65, and 40 percent to 66 percent of adults older than 75, have some degree of hearing loss.

Screen employees for hearing loss and require the use of hearing aids when necessary.

Minimize exposure to loud noise, and educate employees on the effects of noise and on the importance of wearing hearing protection.

Minimize background noise to help improve both hearing and comprehension in older workers.
Older workers may sacrifice speed for accuracy in decision-making.

Minimize tasks requiring quick decisions. Older workers process information more slowly than younger workers.

Reduce distractions and simultaneous demands. Older workers perform better to a single stimulus and response scenario than they do to tasks requiring quick analysis of information from multiple sources.

Allow sufficient time for older workers to analyze information and form decisions.
Reaction time for older workers is slower than for younger adults, and the difference becomes greater as the task grows more complex.

Minimize tasks requiring quick reactions.

Allow additional time to perform tasks.

Consider good ergonomic design that takes into account the limitations of the older worker.
Older adults may face a number of risk factors—including illness, disability, medications, grief, and fear of death and institutionalization—that can lead to depression.

Screen for physical problems. Screening and disease management can help older workers understand how to better deal with these stressful conditions and provide a better sense of self-control.

Modify the workplace. A willingness to modify the workplace for the older worker can help reassure older workers that they are valued.

Train managers to identify the symptoms of depression among older workers.
Adapted from “Safety and Health Implications of an Aging Workforce,” by Glenn D. Daviet