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The Aging Workforce and the Importance of Ergonomics
By Ariel Jenkins, CSP, ARM MBA, ARM-E, Safety Nationa
l



Q:  What are some of the realities of an aging workforce and why should employers be concerned with these realitie?

A:   In a recent AARP survey, nearly 50% of workers expect to work into their 70s to 80s and some plan to never retire.  Older employees now constitute a larger segment of the workforce. In general, up to 20% of workers in most states are 55 or older. It is projected that, by 2016, almost 55 million U.S. workers will be 50 or older.  


Q:  What are some of the risk factors and how is ergonomics related to an aging workforce?

A:   Ergonomics is intended to maximize productivity by minimizing worker fatigue and discomfort.  When work is designed based on arbitrary or unrealistic production demands without regard to Human Factors, the result is increased risks of injuries.  Human Factors within the context of an aging workforce, includes capabilities with respect to human parameters, education, and motivation. Repetitive motion, awkward postures, such as bending/stooping, overreaching, and wrist deviation are all ergonomic risk factors. 

Manually handling excessive weights, due to the lack of mechanical aids, causes undo biomechanical forces on the body that lead to related injuries and illnesses.   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.


Q:  What ergonomic interventions can reduce the risks to an aging workforce?

A:  Employers should contact ergonomists and/or risk control professionals for their expertise on how to control and reduce the risks of ergonomic related claims.  Many insurance carrier risk control consultants have adequate ergonomics experience or are very well connected with ergonomists.  Employers can start with examining work surfaces and the impact on all workers, especially in relation to their aging workforce.  Employers should use workers' compensation claims data and employee reports of discomfort to prioritize which specific work areas to assess for ergonomics issues and, subsequently, employ interventions.  

Ergonomics experts will be able to identify risk factors that can be adequately controlled by a combination of new equipment that increases or supports the capabilities of workers, engineering, administrative controls, or work practice controls.  Regardless of the methods of control, ergonomic interventions must be accepted by the workforce, and, at least, reduce biomechanical forces on the human body to be effective.

Employers should design standing workstations in accordance with established standing and sitting workstation guidelines from organizations such as NIOSH.  Employers should be open to providing older workers with sit stands, which allow workers to productively sit and stand. 


Q:  If employers do not strategize for an aging workforce what could be the consequences?

A:  Workers’ compensation (WC) interventions for an aging workforce must be viewed as an investment to where the returns are reduced WC losses.  Compare two directly competing companies with similar workforce demographics, physically demanding/hand manipulative tasks, and similar WC exposures; to where one has a proactive strategy and the one other does not.  As each of these companies's workforces' age, there will be a distinct difference in both of their WC loss experiences.  The one with the proactive aging workforce strategy can ultimately gain a competitive advantage over the company without one. A corporate culture of not accommodating older workers can also become a breeding ground for litigation for both WC risks and from an HR standpoint.

Q:  What other strategies and best practices can employers execute to address the realities of an aging workforce?

A:  Set defined expectations for both footwear and body mechanics.  Workplace footwear should be slip resistant and designed for standing on concrete and other hard surfaces within a 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) and, subsequently, reduces the risks of injuries.

Establishing body mechanics methods by job description will help educate an aging workforce on how to manually handle objects with minimal impact to vulnerable areas of the body.

Other best practices include:

•    Ergonomics steering committees
•    Health plans with wellness incentives
•    Fitness center support from employer
•    Encourage use of primary care physicians for health issues not related to work
•    "Stretch-N-Flex" programs
•    On-the-job WC physical rehabilitation, which tends to reduce indemnity costs
•    Functional employment testing 
•    Involvement of ergonomists in the design of work areas in pre-construction planning stages, as early as possible


About the Author:


Ariel Jenkins CSP, ARM MBA, ARM-E, is Senior Risk Control Manager at Safety National Casualty Corporation. He can be contacted at ariel.jenkins@safetynational.com.


Safety National is the leading provider of excess workers’ compensation coverage to self-insured employers and groups nationwide, and has provided that type of coverage longer than any other company in the United States. Learn more at
www.safetynational.com



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