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Health & Safety Issues Of An Aging Workforce: The Ninth In A Series Of Useful Information ‘That You Can Use’ From The Center For Occupational & Environmental Medicine At Buffalo’s Erie County Medical Center

Published Tuesday, March 27, 2018
by Nellie J. Brown, MS, CIH/Via The COEM @ ECMC
Health & Safety Issues Of An Aging Workforce: The Ninth In A Series Of Useful Information ‘That You Can Use’ From The Center For Occupational & Environmental Medicine At Buffalo’s Erie County Medical Center Editor’s Note: The Center for Occupational & Environmental Medicine (COEM), located at Buffalo’s Erie County Medical Center (ECMC), is available to Workers both Union and non, providing care to those who are injured, impaired or who develop an illness as a result of workplace factors - which may include exposure issues, physical injuries, or any other job hazard.  The COEM is also a New York State Department of Health-funded Clinic for the diagnosis and treatment of occupational injuries and illnesses for Workers living in the five counties of Western New York.  The COEM also offers services for any Worker with other job-related medical needs, such as physicals required for employment or licensure - and they assist with completion of paper-work for Worker Compensation Claims. With state-of-the-art diagnostic equipment and a highly-skilled and caring Staff, the COEM’s Health Care Services meet U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Department of Health Safety Standards.  The COEM takes a different approach to the treatment of injured Workers through prevention, early diagnosis and treatment.  Opened in 2015, the COEM was developed with great support from Western New York Labor Unions and their Leadership.  The COEM, which is open Monday through Friday - 9 a.m. through 5 p.m., can be reached at 716-898-5858.


The author of this article is Nellie Brown (pictured below), who serves as the Director of the Workplace Health and Safety Program, a Statewide Program of the Worker Institute at Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations.  Nellie provides Industrial Hygiene Services for the COEM.


Harry finds it hard to hear other operators calling his cell phone against the background noise of the chemical mixing process.  Recently, he’s found it difficult to see process flow data on the computer screen.  The building’s entrance has very bright lighting, but the inside corridor is rather dim, so it is easy to trip on the threshold step when he can’t see it.  A year ago, Harry slipped on the metal grid stairway up to the control room, twisting his ankle, and was off work for six weeks - two weeks longer than his doctor had expected.

When Joan, a 34-year employee, heard that an addition would be built along two sides of the building, she asked if an underground tank would be moved and piping re-routed.  She was told there wasn’t any tank or piping.  “I ‘know they’re there,’” she stated confidently. “When I was first hired, we had a ‘nasty backup’ of sewage in the restrooms and we used port-a-potties while the septic system was repaired.  It was a ‘slow job’ because the feed lines to the chemical storage tank out back were uncovered at the same time and the Septic Repair Workers had to be very careful working so close to them.”  

What do we mean by an “aging workforce”?

As we live longer and healthier, older people continue to grow as a proportion of the working population.  The number of Workers age 45 and older has doubled since 1950.  Workers older than 55 are the workforce’s fastest growing group.  While many enjoy their jobs, satisfied to be useful and productive, for others, there is no choice - expenses, especially health care costs, necessitate postponing retirement.

As Baby Boomers retire, they’re followed by a substantially-smaller younger generation and many employers want to attract and retain more experienced Workers.

Older Workers are safer Workers - total injury rates are actually lower among older Workers, but aging can sometimes make an injury more severe.  An example would be a fall for a young person producing bruises, whereas a fall from the same height for an older person produces broken bones.  Or an older person might see more strains and sprains from a job than a younger person.  Certainly, as we age, our rate of healing is slower and we might need more time for recuperation than a younger person.  This was Harry’s problem, when he slipped and twisted his ankle, and was off work for longer than his doctor had predicted.

While growing old is inevitable, our productivity and performance can stay high.  After all, most jobs don’t require us to perform at our full capacity, even if we work closer to our limits than younger workers might do.  Individuals vary - people age at different rates.  In some ways, older Workers are the most skilled and productive Employees, but in other ways, they can be the most vulnerable.  Some of these vulnerabilities are the normal changes of aging, while others are conditions that become more likely as we get older, such as coronary artery disease.

Our basic strength peaks at age 30, then declines, especially after age 60.  We tire faster and rest/sleep may be insufficient for recovery.  Our strength and endurance can be improved with strength training, aerobics, stretching and other forms of exercise - but we won’t build muscle as quickly as when we were younger. 

How could we address these issues in the workplace?  Reducing musculoskeletal risks is valuable for the entire workforce, not just for older workers.  For example - stop lifting, lowering and carrying. Replace that with push, pull, and slideSubstitute mechanical for manual strength.  Reduce highly-repetitive tasks.  Allow adequate recovery/rest time.  Reduce static and stressful postures and use job rotation to reduce the potential for overexertion in any one person

Of course, if a person’s physical capacity makes modest strength or endurance impossible, an alternative job assignment and retraining may be necessary.

Many workers over 50 begin to have problems with balance - risking injuries from trips and falls.  Without regular exercise, weaker abdominal muscles can lead to spinal instability and back pain.  There are easy walking/weight bearing exercises and other physical therapy that can strengthen and support the back.  

How could we address these issues in the workplace?  It could be helpful to add handrails along travel routes, use slip-resistant walking surfaces, repair uneven floors and keep floors dry.  In addition, improving housekeeping can reduce clutter and potential tripping hazards.

Aging can also bring vision changes as we lose depth perception and our abilities to focus on near objects or discriminate colors.  Transitions from light-to-dark or dark-to-light are harder and it can become more difficult to distinguish items with low contrast.  These can make night driving more difficult.  Also, aging can bring macular degeneration, glaucoma or cataracts.

How could we address these issues in the workplace?  General workplace lighting could be increased, perhaps by using task lights to improve contrast and details.  To reduce shadows, position a task light to the side and front of the body.  Adding color-contrast between stairway risers and treads could improve visibility.

This would be very helpful in Harry’s case because the metal grid steps seem to blend into each other, making it difficult for him to see the edges of the steps.  When moving from one area to another, making light changes gradual, rather than abrupt, could compensate for the slower adaptation of our eyes as we age.  This would help Harry, as the transition from bright outdoor lighting to a dim corridor makes it difficult to see the threshold step and he can trip.  Also, using large video displays could help with computer screens.

Aging can bring changes to hearing - especially for detecting low intensity sound or locating the source of sounds.  Background noises can make it difficult to hear sounds or understand what someone is saying.  This is a problem for Harry who finds it difficult to hear the phone ring against the background noise of plant equipment.  Noise can be even more damaging to our hearing when we are older than when we were younger.

How could we address this issue in the workplace?  Certainly we can reduce workplace noise generally and use sound damping to reduce background noise.  If workplace warnings or process annunciators use only sound, we could add a redundant warning such as flashing warning lights. Harry solved his problem of hearing his cell phone against background noise by using the “vibrate” mode instead of a ring tone.  Other helpful solutions could be having volume-adjustable communications equipment and amplifying devices.  The U.S. Department of Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (OSHA) noise regulations require an employer to provide a Hearing Conservation Program, including testing your hearing annually, if noise equals or exceeds an eight-hour time-weighted-average of 85 decibels.  If, your workplace’s noise level exceeds 90 decibels as an eight-hour time-weighted-average and it can’t be reduced with engineering or administrative controls, hearing protection is needed to reduce exposure below 90 decibels.  But, if your tests show hearing damage, then your hearing protection must reduce noise below 85 decibels.

Aging can also affect how our bodies deal with extremes of temperature - heat stress and cold stress.  As we age, we tend to have less tolerance of heat stress, especially if we already have heart or kidney problems or other risk factors.  We also can experience changes to our skin’s sensation of hot and cold.  

How could we address these issues in the workplace?  OSHA has no regulations on heat stress and cold stress, but the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health’s (NIOSH) advisories are particularly helpful.  For heat stress, whether due to hot weather or hot processes (such as molten metal, ovens for baking or curing), a workplace needs a Heat Alert Program. A physical exam can pinpoint health concerns that could put someone at greater risk in hot environments.  Keep in mind that personal protective equipment and clothing can add to the heat stress burden.  For cold stress, it’s helpful to review a workplace’s hazard assessments for proper selection and sufficient supply of personal protective equipment, to make sure the body is kept warm enough.  We should pay particular attention to hand protection for contacting cold surfaces, such as equipment controls.  Having sufficient non-caffeinated liquids for hydration is important for both heat and cold stress.  Work breaks and rest areas are necessary for people to cool off or warm up as needed.

Fortunately, our intelligence does not decrease with age.  Certainly, laboratory studies have indicated that normal aging processes affect both short-term and long-term memory, but age does not adversely affect the quality of our decisions.  While older adults make decisions more slowly than younger ones, this appears to be because our brain’s database has acquired more memories from experience - so more experiences can be consulted before we make a decision.

How could we address these issues in the workplace?  Well, that depends upon how important these issues truly are in real-life work settings.  After all, at work, we’re influenced by our habits and surroundings.  Habits are our memories for procedural skills - these are relatively well-maintained with age.  Moreover, when we are at work, there are “cues-to-action” everywhere - our surroundings remind us of what we need to do and how to do it.  We can help this along by using signage, “cheat sheets,” and “to-do” lists (I personally find that sticky notes are very handy as “external memory.”).  If we need to develop new skills, we can play to our strengths by using hands-on practice and refreshers.  We especially need to get enough sleep to allow the brain to form new memories from what we learn.

As Workers retire, they can take valuable, often critical, information and experience with them. This issue emerged in Joan’s situation.  Her employer’s design engineer didn’t have the information she was able to provide because the as-built drawings for the original building were lost when the basement of the plant’s administration building was flooded many years ago. With no backups to this information, excavation could have produced a nasty chemical spill, possibly have injured Workers, and may have led to a hefty environmental fine.  Joan’s employer is now seriously thinking about how to preserve the knowledge and experience of those close to retirement and pass the information to new hires.

How could we address this issue in the workplace?  One technique to capture such knowledge is to run group exercises with Hazard Analysis Tools such as Process Hazard/Failure Analysis and Vulnerability Analysis.  As people solve potential workplace problems and evaluate risks and solutions together, information and experience can emerge and be captured

Remember that older Workers can be more productive than younger workers - apparently, the changes associated with age may actually enhance our capabilities and performance at work.

We may even compensate for age-related losses by using the strategies and skills related to our experience and expertise.

And, sometimes, we can move into work that matches our competence.

It appears that our experience, work ethic, or the accommodations we do to compensate for aging all work together to make us valuable Employees.



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