It is not a secret that the U.S. workforce is aging. And companies need to create a safe working environment for the aging workforce. According to recent research, by 2026, about 25% of the workforce will be over 50 years old, with around 17% being over 65. It is important to acknowledge that the average age of a high-skilled U.S. manufacturing worker is 56.
While these demographics represent some challenges, they also represent opportunities for businesses. Companies need to engage in practices that enhance a healthy and safe working experience for their aging workers. At the same time, by adopting ergonomic programs, education, and training, companies will result in a healthier, more productive, and safer workplace.
Why Protect and Retain the Aging Workforce
No doubt, aging workers are valuable to companies across different industries. Losing them could harm your business’ performance. According to research made by the National Technical Assistance and Research Center:
“25 million Baby Boomers, who make up more than 40 percent of the U.S. labor force, will be exiting the workforce in large numbers and leaving many jobs to be filled. With their departure, the work characteristics that define the Baby Boomer generation — results-driven, ambitious, idealistic, competitive, optimistic, and people-oriented — may be lost unless companies creatively develop strategies to retain older workers (Morton, Foster, & Sedlar, 2005).”
Characteristics of the Aging Workforce
With age comes change, not only physical but also physiological and psychosocial changes making them more at risk of developing musculoskeletal injuries (MSD). We must recognize and understand those changes if we want to create a proper working space for the aging workforce.
For a better understanding of these changes, here you have a brief definition of them.
- Physical Changes: Physical changes might look like losing strength, flexibility, balance, sight, reaction time and speed, hearing, manual dexterity and feedback, and body fat.
- Physiological Changes: These changes are related to a decrease in maximum oxygen intake, rising systemic blood pressure, fatigue, and less tolerance to extreme temperatures.
- Psychosocial Changes: These changes refer to different shift preferences, training, and learning styles. Aging workers sometimes tend to experience disenfranchisement and disengagement with their work.
Designing a Working Space for the Aging Workforce
The principle behind ergonomics is to adapt the working space to the people and not the other way around. To design an optimum and safe space, you must keep in mind the limitations and capabilities of your employees. The use of ergonomics in the workspace prevents injuries and illnesses and improves workers’ performance and overall health.
Ergonomics and the Aging Workforce
By designing an ergonomic workspace, you are providing a safer and more productive environment for your employees. These are the basic ergonomic principles. They are helpful and necessary for an aging workforce.
- Working in neutral postures. Maintaining a neutral position while working reduces stress and strain on your musculoskeletal system.
- Allowing for posture changes. Sitting for long periods or not changing posture while working has negative effects on your body. Arranging workstations and tasks to allow employees to move is necessary to keep the movement system healthy.
- Work from the “power zone.” The power zone refers to the optimal location to perform work.
- Good lighting. Good lighting is crucial for everybody. However, the aging workforce is more susceptible as the visual acuity deteriorates with age.
These ergonomic principles will significantly reduce ergonomic risk factors for your employees.
An Inclusive Approach
It is necessary to identify and remove MSD risk factors in order to prevent injuries and enhance a safe work environment. The best way to do so is by including an ergonomic process, education and training, and early intervention.
Implementing education and training programs could motivate employees to accept responsibility for adopting healthier work habits and lifestyle choices. Early intervention involves proactive management of MSD signs. Taking action as soon as an employee reports fatigue or discomfort in the working spaces reduces the risk of MSD.
Remember that regardless of your employees’ demographics, you should always provide a working space adapted to them and not the other way around.