Workers over the age of 55 represent a large and essential segment of the American economy, and their influence is growing. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, one-in-four U.S. workers will be 55 or older by 2030.
During the pandemic, a large amount of older workers did exit the workforce, however SeniorLiving.org’s Senior Employment Annual Report illustrates that there are signs of that rebounding. In May 2020, 54% of workers 55 and older were either working remotely or unable to work because of the virus. Today, that figure has decreased to 15%, which may continue to decline with the wide availability of additional vaccine doses. In addition, the existing labor shortage has created attractive opportunities for older adults. Those who previously left or lost their jobs may re-enter the workforce with a prospect of earning higher wages and receiving better benefits.
These statistics send a clear message to employers. Proactive management of the risk factors associated with an aging workforce is essential. That means prioritizing the maximization of productivity by minimizing worker fatigue and discomfort – otherwise known as ergonomics.
Repetitive motion and awkward postures, such as bending, stooping, overreaching and wrist deviation, are all ergonomic risk factors. An aging workforce cannot continue to meet production demands by subjecting itself to risk factors that exacerbate the natural degeneration of the body without experiencing severe musculoskeletal injuries at some point.
Workers’ compensation interventions for an aging workforce must be viewed as an investment with the return on that investment being reduced losses. A corporate culture that fails to accommodate older workers in a proactive manner can also lead to new risks and employee relations issues.
Here are 10 ergonomic strategies to consider:
1. Contact ergonomists and/or risk control professionals for their expertise on how to control and reduce the risks of ergonomic-related claims. If you do not know where to start, your insurance carrier’s risk control consultants likely have adequate ergonomics experience. It is also probable that they are well connected with ergonomists and can put you in touch with an expert.
2. Take advantage of what your workers’ compensation claims data is telling you. Analyze employee reports of discomfort to prioritize which specific work areas to assess for ergonomics issues and, subsequently, apply work redesign and other interventions where possible. Experts will typically apply a ‘hierarchy of controls’ approach and consider engineering, administrative, work practice and equipment controls.
3. Set defined expectations for both footwear and body mechanics. Footwear expectations should be aligned with controlling risks of the walking, standing or climbing work surfaces. For example, if the work surface is slippery, concrete, or some other hard surface, the workplace footwear should be slip resistant and designed for standing on concrete and other hard surfaces within the work environment. Anti-fatigue mats used in conjunction with the best workplace footwear reduces compression forces to the lower back and lower extremities (ankles and knees).
4. Establish body mechanics methods by job description to help educate employees on how to handle objects manually with minimal impact to vulnerable areas of the body.
5. Apply functional employment testing (also known as fit-for-duty testing) during the hiring process to help ensure you are acquiring employees that are physically capable of performing the job. Typically, functional employment testing is conducted after an employment offer has been made. If the sequence of conducting functional employment testing is in question, be sure to seek advice from HR and/or legal professionals.
6. Set up Ergonomics Steering Committees with stakeholders that can help influence and drive a culture of safety. Regardless of the methods of control, ergonomic interventions must be inclusive and accepted by the workforce to be effective.
7. Establish a ‘Stretch and Flex’ program, which includes regular stretching and strengthening of the muscles that are commonly associated with sprains, strains and other ergonomic injuries.
8. Consider providing on-the-job workers’ compensation physical rehabilitation, which helps reduce indemnity costs and tends to help injured employees recover and heal faster.
9. Encourage routine use of primary care physicians for health issues that are not related to work. When a workplace injury occurs, comorbidities can exacerbate the injury and complicate the healing process.
10. When applicable, involve ergonomists in the design of work areas. Do this as early as possible in the pre-construction planning stages.
Ariel Jenkins is Assistant Vice President – Risk Services at Safety National, where he is responsible for managing the client services team, directing technical risk control content, and overseeing risk control resources associated with Safety National’s public entity practice and excess and surplus lines of business. Throughout his career, he has served as a safety and loss prevention consultant for several large organizations, and is a member of the American Society of Safety Professionals.