Over the past 50 years, advances in health care and medicine have helped Americans improve their health and increase their life expectancy by eight years. Improvements in health and growing financial needs have motivated older adults to work beyond the usual retirement age of 65 years. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), research has shown that as Baby Boomers age, they are prolonging their employment, resulting in an increased number of older workers in the workplace.
What Qualifies an Older Employee?
There is no regulation defining an older worker, but different organizations use a variety of ages from 40-65 years to determine when a worker is considered “older”. The U.S. Department of Labor, for instance, considers an “aging” worker to be 55 years or older; however, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967 was written to protect anyone in the workplace older than 40 years.
According to CE Risk Management 32 million workers over the age of 55 are estimated to be in the workforce by 2025. For this reason, it’s important to examine the physical and cognitive problems related to aging. Manufacturing and construction companies are already beginning to change their working environment in order to keep older workers safe.
Are Older Workers a Risk for Employers?
The answer to this is yes and no. In reality, older workers have much lower absenteeism issues, turnover, and accident rates. However, they do take longer to return to work after an injury. In fact, according to CE Risk Management, “A major impact on workers’ compensation is that aging generates co-morbidities (i.e., multiple illnesses or injuries that lead to increased recovery time).”
According to the CDC, studies have shown that most employers have a positive view of older workers. They tend to have greater knowledge of the job than younger employees, as well as a willingness to learn new tasks quickly, resiliency, and the ability to maintain the physical demands of their jobs. In fact, aging workers are believed to positively affect productivity overall. Greater costs are associated with increasing health and safety risks more than increasing age. Despite the facts, the perception of older workers can sometimes be deceiving. Many people believe that older workers are costlier than their younger counterparts. However, most employers do not find aging workers’ limitations problematic enough to offset the benefits of hiring or keeping them on the job.
Best Practices to Keep Aging Employees Safer in The Workforce
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention attributes the improvement of efficiency in older workers to effective interventions in employee health, safety, and productivity.
According to their research, a worker’s maximum strength diminishes after 30 years of age, and by age 65 maximum oxygen intake is reduced by 30 percent. While this can inhibit their work performance when it comes to physically demanding labor, there are multiple non-physical advantages aging workers can bring to the job: knowledge, experience, dedication, and maturity.
According to the AXA Report from the Economist Intelligence Unit Limited, another advantage is that older workers can be moved into positions where they can mentor and train younger workers, making them an asset to the company. This allows employers to use and retain the experience and knowledge of an older worker, while also enabling him or her to continue contributing to the workplace.
The Center for Disease Control actually recommends using age-appropriate, potentially life-saving preventive services to prevent or detect disease early when treatment is most effective. These services can be offered through a company’s health benefits plan to active employees, along with retirees.
According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 26 percent of employers offer these benefits to both current employees and retirees. Kaiser recommends that older employees strive to maintain their musculoskeletal health in order to avoid common injuries, such as lower back pain, carpal tunnel syndrome, and tendinitis.
Furthermore, maintaining a safe, well-designed workplace will reduce the risk of injuries for all workers. Work areas and job tasks should be appropriately matched to the capacity of each individual worker. The CDC maintains that “there should be no conflict between ergonomic principles (practices that prevent musculoskeletal injuries because of repetitive or forceful movement or maintaining awkward or constrained postures) and reasonable accommodations (a change made to enable a person with a disability to perform the essential functions of the job).” This benefits the employer in the form of higher productivity, less absenteeism, and lower morbidity.
Every day there are new practices to improve occupational safety and health, many of which are being studied by researchers. Some of these best practices include: allowing older workers to stay on the job, helping them to avoid injury, and allowing them to return after an illness or injury. Furthermore, including slower and self-paced work, with more rest breaks, adjustable seating, and less repetitive tasks will indefinitely help to accommodate the health of older workers. Lastly, in addition to ergonomic and workplace modifications, health modifications for aging workers with chronic illness can include flexible work schedules to accommodate medical care and periods of decreased workloads. These are often easy changes to incorporate, completely economical, and designed for the needs of older workers with specific capabilities and limitations.
- AXA Report from the Economist Intelligence Unit Limited Web site. July 2012.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics. Spotlight on Statistics Older Workers; July 2012.
- CE Risk Management. Aging Workforce’s Impact on Health and Safety. June 2014.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Worksite health 101: making the business case. Presented for webinar series; June 18, 2012; Atlanta, GA.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Issue Brief No 1 - Older Employees in the Workplace; July 2012.
- The Kaiser Family Foundation. The Health Workforce Dream Team: Who Will Provide the Care? December 2010.