With 31.9 million workers over the age of 55 estimated to be in the U.S. labor force by 2025, it’s important to examine the physical, psychosocial and cognitive issues related to aging. Construction companies cannot continue to run their businesses as usual and expect older workers to remain safe.
A major impact on workers’ compensation is that aging generates co-morbidities (i.e., multiple illnesses or injuries that lead to increased recovery time). A 55-year-old worker suffering from a back injury caused by cumulative trauma also may suffer from disc degeneration found in almost all men and women over the age of 40. While older workers have low absenteeism, turnover and accident rates, they take longer to return to work after injuries and illnesses because they are likely to heal more slowly and have pre-existing health problems.
Loss of strength stems from decreased muscle mass. Muscles take longer to respond to action and fatigue faster as people age. The number and size of muscle fibers also decreases.
Heavy lifting and lowering, awkward positions and static postures are all risk factors for workplace injuries. Tasks requiring grip force and exertion, as well as repetitive tasks, are more difficult with decreased strength and endurance. Reduced grip strength goes along with reduced muscle and soft tissue capabilities. Hand grip strength decreases, making it more difficult to accomplish routine activities such as turning a valve or lifting, pulling and opening materials.
To assist aging workers, reduce the time spent performing these tasks or provide mechanical assists. For example, choose hand tools and handheld devices that are appropriately sized to compensate for reduced grip strength.
To prevent soft tissue injuries, identify the jobs that carry the greatest physical risks to the various soft tissue groups through a systematic, quantifiable process. Prioritize the jobs that will keep employees working longer, as well as those that could be used for return-to-work duties. Some of the ways to help employees include:
- reduce work with static muscle effort (i.e., sustained, fixed postures);
- increase use of mechanized equipment;
- keep work in a neutral zone (i.e., get materials off the floor); and
- reduce or eliminate twisting of the upper torso.
Vision is by far a worker’s most important sensory channel. Approximately 90 percent of most of the information learned in a lifetime enters through the eyes.
Normal age-related changes in vision include impaired ability to adapt to changes in light levels (a 60-year-old person requires two to three times the amount of light as a 20-year-old person), extreme sensitivity to glare, reduced visual acuity (ability to discern detail), and restricted field of vision and depth perception. Impaired depth perception may cause a person to perceive a shadow on the floor as a step or a hole, and visual misinterpretation based on visual misinformation can severely impair an individual’s ability to function safely.
The single largest missing ingredient in workplace facilities to assist aging workers is light. Using more task-specific lighting and indirect lighting, especially with computers, creates a better working environment. Use soft, white lights rather than bright, clear lights, which create glare.
Pools of light can distort perception of height and depth, causing stumbling or tripping. Uneven brightness patterns can produce shadows or create the illusion of steps or edges where light and shadow meet. Provide gradual changes in light levels.
Reducing glare contributes to comfort and helps minimize falls and maximize attention span. Appropriate task lighting increases a worker’s level of performance. Very few managers correlate productivity and efficiency to the correct light levels.
High contrast is very effective in enhancing visual function. For example, an edge band of contrasting color can help a worker see a desk or countertop more easily. The aging eye is best able to discriminate saturated colors at the warm end of the spectrum, and colors with a high degree of brightness, such as yellow, are particularly visible. Distinguishing between blue and green and blue and violet hues can be difficult.
Mental processing and reaction time become slower with age. In fact, it starts in young adulthood (late twenties) and by the time people are 60 or older they generally take longer to perform mental tasks. Some experts contend older adults do not lose mental competence; it simply takes them longer to process the necessary information. In addition to cognitive decline, slower processing speed has been linked to a decline in motor function. Therefore, older adults may have less dexterity and coordination than when they were younger.
Certain training methods work well for older adults. Their best method for learning is direct, hands-on experience so they can use what they learn right away. It is important for older workers to be involved in planning and training. Relating new learning to past experiences, accommodating for vision and hearing loss, and establishing an acceptable pace for learning new information are critical elements to retaining new information.
It is important to understand cognitive changes are not universal. The degree of decline can be small and likely will not interfere with day-to-day functioning. It may take older employees longer to learn something new, but they can still learn.
Following are factors impacting a person’s cognitive function:
- Exercise. Regular exercise helps maintain blood flow to brain cells.
- Diet and nutrition. Maintain proper weight, minimize the consumption of animal fats and eat more fruit and grains to maintain good brain function.
- Emotional health. Stress, depression and other psychiatric conditions can negatively affect memory.
- Pain. Physical pain interferes with the ability to pay attention to information, which hinders learning.
- Medication. The side effects of and interactions among medications may interfere with memory.
Research indicates the nation’s 79 million baby boomers want to continue to work either full or part-time. To ensure a healthy work life, employers need to address the relationship between the functional capacities of younger and older employees. Assessing the capabilities and limitations of older workers and working within these parameters will positively affect productivity, efficiency and safety among all age groups.