Sarasota, FL (WorkersCompensation.com) – Arthritis is the most common chronic disease in the workforce. Osteoarthritis, in particular, affects nearly half of workers aged 55 and older. The condition can be challenging for workers as well as employers, due to its unpredictability and the fact that its intensity varies from day to day.
But arthritis, like many conditions that affect older workers can be managed. Employers can initiate strategies that address age-related conditions so older workers can avoid missing workdays and work to their full potential.
The Growing Aging Population
Older workers increasingly make up a large segment of the workforce. Estimates are that about 25 percent of the U.S. workforce will be at least 55 years old as of 2020.
Among the advantages of older workers is their
- Ability to get along well with coworkers
- Likeliness to follow safety rules and regulations more so than younger workers
While older workers are not necessarily more prone to injuries than other workers — possibly even less so, their injuries may take longer to heal. This is especially true of musculoskeletal injuries.
Exacerbating the risks to older workers is the fact that many work in the wholesale and retail trade sector and have nonstandard work arrangements; such as temporary help, part-time or on-call, app-based, freelance and gig workers.
“Nonstandard work arrangements tend to be unpredictable in terms of place, time, and quantity of hours scheduled to work,” according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “Long hours and irregular schedules are features of many nonstandard work arrangements and they are associated with increased injuries.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, more than 33 percent of contractors were 55 or older, compared to less than 25 percent in traditional work arrangements. Longer hours and the unpredictability of these jobs can add stress, which increases the risk of injuries.
What Employers Can Do
“To meet the needs of aging workers in nonstandard work arrangements, companies might consider implementing practices that promote productive aging, such as ergonomically appropriate work environments, return-to-work policies, and matching tasks to abilities,” NIOSH wrote in a recent blog post. “Employers should also keep in mind that reducing stressors, such as long hours, can improve overall health and well-being for all workers as they age.”
Productive aging refers to the idea of emphasizing positive aspects of growing older. It involves providing a safe and healthy environment that allows workers of all ages to function optimally.
Included would be a coordinated program that uses educational and interventional strategies that impact factors particularly affecting older workers; such as ergonomics, injury prevention, chronic disease management, and workplace flexibility.
Contrary to what many might believe, there are a multitude of things employers can do to improve the experience for older workers, and add to their own bottom lines. Arthritis is a prime example.
This inflammation of the joints can be mildly irritating one day and excruciating painful the next, forcing workers to take off days from work. Managing the condition is key. Regular, low impact activity can improve arthritis over the long term, even though it may be painful initially. Also, taking medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help alleviate the pain.
Some things employers can do include:
- Facilitate awareness of the condition within the entire company.
- Implement and strictly enforce anti age-related discrimination, as many workers with arthritis may not want to expose their conditions for fear they will be viewed as old.
- Ensure health insurance covers the needs of workers with arthritis, and ensure workers are aware of this is another important strategy.
- Establish workplace wellness programs that help workers with arthritis, just as they help those with diabetes and other chronic conditions.
- Provide flexibility at the workplace can be extremely beneficial. A worker with arthritis may need special time to apply an ice pack to a swollen joint, or have a light snack when taking medications, and giving them time for self-care might mean the difference between them taking off work or not.
- Adapt the physical work environment is another key factor in helping not only workers with arthritis, but all workers function more easily. For example, changing a door knob to a door lever makes it easier for all workers to open. Substituting mechanical force for manual force where possible is another option.
Such changes can have a tremendous impact on an organization. BMW realized its workforce was aging and conducted a pilot program to better accommodate it. Company officials met with workers at one assembly line in Germany and asked them how the company could make their work easier. Many said their feet hurt, so the company got special shoes and floor pads and created a space for workers to stretch. In all, there were 70 small changes at a total cost of $50,000. The result was a 7 percent improvement in productivity, and fewer days away from work than the level for the entire factory. The company is now implementing such changes in many of its facilities, including some in the U.S.