According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, one out of every four American workers will be 55 years or older by 2020 – a statistic that may be even higher within maritime operations. Consequently, older workers will have a substantial role in our future workforce. This is an important trend to watch due to the:
- Potential for increased risk of fatal work injuries
- Additional time required to return to work following an injury or illness
- Decreased likelihood of an older injured worker being retrained for a job change
- Increased challenges for a positive long-term injury outcome and recovery to a normal life
The decision by employees to continue working into the later years of life has been the result of several interwoven factors, including:
- The continually increasing life expectancy of the population
- The elimination of mandatory retirement and the enactment of age discrimination laws
- The continuing economic uncertainty and the impact of the financial crisis on many individuals’ retirement savings and investment accounts
- Increases in healthcare costs and a decrease in the availability of health benefits
- Changes in the Social Security laws
- An increase in the typical retirement age and reduced benefits with early retirement
There are no uniform solutions to handling the issues of an aging workforce, but management can apply some best practices to help reduce the potential for injuries. Appropriate risk management activities such as job hazard analyses, ergonomics, and wellness programs can maximize safety for older workers as well as their younger counterparts. The three critical areas that management can focus on to lessen the risk of injury to an aging workforce are:
- Employee health and fitness
- Reduction of physical work demands
- Supervisor accountability for safety
Employee Health and Fitness
A healthy and fit workforce promotes a safe workforce. There is a direct correlation between health and fitness, and how well the human body can prevent injuries and heal. The most costly and significant injuries for older workers involve strains and sprains to backs, necks, shoulders, and knees. The majority of these injuries are cumulative trauma disorders which are caused by a lack of strength and flexibility. Management must educate employees about the important role that flexibility and strength play in preserving their fitness and should continually emphasize the importance of personal responsibility in the establishment of good health. Wellness and stretching programs can significantly reduce risk factors for injuries.
The workplace can be an ideal location for a stretching/warm-up program because it offers the routine and structure that is needed and, in the right circumstances, will contribute to a positive culture. Ideally, stretching programs should be completed at the beginning of each daily shift as part of an employee’s safety routine. It also provides an opportunity to communicate about near-misses, unsafe acts, and unsafe conditions. Because stretching feels good, employees feel the benefits almost immediately. If management truly wants to reduce injury rates and incidents, they must participate as well and be consistent with a stretching/warm-up regimen.
Nutrition also plays a critical role in our health and ability to fight illness and injury. Poor nutrition and unhealthy lifestyles must not be overlooked. Although employees cannot be forced to eat healthy foods, they should be offered healthy alternatives at workplace vending machines and encouraged to practice good eating habits. Consider replacing many of the unhealthy snacks and beverages in vending machines with more wholesome alternatives, which your vendor should be able to provide. Healthy eating habits include reducing or eliminating refined sugars, saturated fats and oils, and highly salted and processed foods. Zero-calorie flavored waters, low-sugar drinks, fruits, vegetables, nuts, granolas, hard-boiled eggs, and yogurts are just some of the alternatives that can help promote healthier eating in the workplace.
Reducing Physical Demands
Maritime-related work can be strenuous and repetitive, but employers need to be sensitive and fair in dealing with limiting certain physical activities that will lead to a higher risk of injury for older workers. Supervisors need to know their workforce and be aware of physical restrictions that some older employees may have. Likewise, older employees need to know their limitations. If there are job tasks that they can no longer safely perform, they need to communicate with their supervisors and consider job accommodations to protect themselves and their coworkers. Decades of strenuous work will take a toll on anyone, and typically around age 50 a person’s body will become more susceptible to cumulative trauma disorders. It can also be more of a challenge for older individuals to recover from cumulative trauma injuries.
For these reasons, it is important to acknowledge high-risk work activities (e.g., working overhead, kneeling, twisting, etc.) and eliminate these practices/behaviors whenever feasible. Physical changes vary by individual, but the aging process causes a loss of muscle mass and flexibility; a 15-20% decrease in strength by age 60 is typical. Employers should prepare for this by examining work tasks and determining the physical requirements for each job.
Here are some sensible measures that management can take to further reduce the potential for injuries, particularly to older workers:
- Implement suitable ergonomics to reduce the risk of exertion-related injuries
- Reduce squatting, stooping, and kneeling activities
- Keep workers from performing above-the-shoulder work whenever possible
- Reduce highly strenuous activities on workers such as lifting, pulling or twisting
- Rotate job tasks and processes
- Focus on eliminating slip, trip and fall exposures
- Provide assistive devices such as hand trucks, dollies, and hoists for material handling
There needs to be open communication between management and employees to establish clear expectations. Both parties will need to work together to make sure that the older workers can do the job safely within their physical abilities. This is why it is so important for management to complete employee performance reviews, establish measurable goals and better understand an employee’s strengths and limitations. The open dialogue should allow an employee to acknowledge their career goals, and discuss the outlook of their employment for the next 5, 10, or 20 years. There needs to be transparency between what management expects and what the worker is anticipating for the duration of their employment. Employers should also encourage employees to participate in the safety process by submitting ideas for process improvements, reporting unsafe work practices and conditions, conducting safety inspections, leading training sessions, or mentoring new hires. Older employees can be a valuable resource in these areas.
Successful management of an aging workforce will be determined by supervision. For all safety programs to be successful, supervisors must be involved and held accountable. Supervisors have the most influence in changing employee behaviors and encouraging them to participate in the safety process. Implementing fitness programs and changing long-practiced at-risk behaviors will not come without challenges, and employers need to be prepared to provide supervisors with training in leadership and mentoring skills to help them be successful in doing so. Below are some suggested topics for advanced supervisor training which will help them improve their abilities as supervisors to motivate and influence safe behaviors:
- Building rapport with the workforce
- Establishing credibility
- Earning respect
- Team building
- Goal setting
- Providing positive recognition and constructive feedback
- Soliciting employee suggestions for improvement
- Fundamentals of leading group training
Unless it is applied on the job, training has no value. For employers to successfully integrate supervisor leadership and safety, supervisors must be audited to ensure they apply what they have learned. Safety and Health professionals are responsible for ensuring that training conducted is regularly audited, and for confirming supervision practices are consistent and safety goals are achieved. Accountability can be further increased by incorporating safety performance as part of a supervisor’s performance evaluation. Supervisors must truly be held accountable for the safety performance of their staff.
Some employers may be wary of hiring or maintaining a primarily aging workforce, and that should not be the case. There are considerable benefits associated with older workers. They:
- Tend to be more engaged at work than younger workers
- Tend to a have a higher level of maturity and professionalism
- Tend to have a stronger work ethic
- Tend to be more stable, resulting in reduced turnover
- Have work experience and knowledge that offsets cognitive declines
The good news is that you can make an impact on how the costs associated with an aging workforce may affect your business by taking proactive steps to focus on the safety and health of aging workers. Promoting fitness, reducing high-risk/strenuous activities, and improving supervisor accountability for safety will help reduce injury rates and assure that older workers can transition to retirement with their health and well-being.
This article originally appeared in the Longshore Insider on April 30, 2018.
- Drennan, F. S. and Richey, D. (2003). Injury Prevention in an Aging Workforce. Professional Safety. Retrieved from http://aeasseincludes.asse.org/professionalsafety/pastissues/048/09/030903as.pdf
- State Fund Compensation Insurance. (n.d.). The Aging Workforce. Retrieved from https://content.statefundca.com/safety/safetymeeting/SafetyMeetingArticle.aspx?ArticleID=345