Workplace Modifications Help Older Workers Avoid Injuries, Claims
While many employers may believe that the increase in the aging population would correspond with a decrease in workplace productivity and a jump in injury claims, the opposite has proven to be true.
According to a white paper by the PMA Companies, a provider of risk management services, employers benefit from older workers. However, researchers said that injuries to older adults tend to be of higher severity, so employers must start making workplace modifications to prevent these claims.
"Not surprisingly, as people age, their skills and faculties, including strength, range of motion, motor skills, sensory acuity, and ability to heal, diminish," said Ken Nogan, risk control consultant at PMA Insurance Group. "While this may suggest that older workers would have a negative effect on workplace productivity and safety, statistics prove otherwise."
Capitalizing on an Aging Workforce is the first white paper in a quarterly series by the firm. Nogan, author of the study, said that since 1977, the number of people 65 and older in the workforce has increased more than 100 percent. In addition, he estimated that the number of workers between 65 and 74 years of age and those who are 75 and older will grow more dramatically -- more than 80 percent -- than any other employee age group in the coming years. Nogan said that more than half of older workers in the United States are now also working full time, up from 44 percent in 1995.
Ergonomics, task rotation offer solutions.
According to a study by the National Council on Compensation Insurance that examined 4.2 million workers' compensation claims filed between 1996 and 2000, musculoskeletal disorders accounted for the most severe injuries to workers 65 and older. Because of this, Nogan said it pays to make modifications to work environments to prevent injuries and limit the severity of injuries commonly sustained by older workers. Specifically, he emphasized ergonomics.
While ergonomic considerations will generally benefit all workers, Nogan said, a few considerations are especially applicable to older workers. Employers, he said, should target shoulders, wrists and backs, which are the areas with the highest musculoskeletal claim severity in older workers. Nogan said a good place to start assessing these problem areas is typically repetitive work performed with body parts in nonneutral positions, especially when the application of force is required to perform the task.
Employers, according to Nogan, should focus on these body parts in older workers:
- Shoulders. Working with the hands above the head or elbows below the shoulders or while extending or reaching away from the body, to the sides, or behind can increase strain and risk of injury.
- Wrists. Performing work that results in repeated deviations of the wrist from the neutral position, contact pressure in the palm in a repeated manner, vibration, and work performed in cold temperatures all increase potential injuries. Nogan said proper tool design can often reduce or eliminate these factors, as small modifications can make a big difference with this particular type of injury.
- Backs. Nogan said employers should identify tasks with heavy lifting, trunk rotation, or forward bending beyond 30 degrees in an unsupported manner. Material handling aids, he said, can often minimize low back strain potential, as can task redesign with ergonomics in mind.
Nogan said task rotation should also be a key component of any program to address the needs of older employees. This is particularly effective, he said, in industries with repetitive tasks. While task rotation can help reduce the strain of repeated motions and static standing time on all workers, Nogan said, it is important to note that it will not eliminate all risks.
If you are considering a task rotation program, Nogan said employers should:
- Involve workers. Task rotation, he said, can be a daunting prospect for older workers who may be comfortable in their current jobs. To alleviate their concerns, Nogan said, employers should involve older workers early in the implementation process to earn their buy-in, respond to their feedback, and raise their awareness of the safety benefits of the program.
- Limit time performing a task. Rotating tasks can be an effective means of limiting the amount of time employees are exposed to the bodily stressors particular to each task. Nogan said the risk of injury for a given task is proportional to the amount of time a worker is exposed to its stressors.
- Vary muscles and movements. Nogan said the tasks within the rotation program must affect different parts of the body in order to provide position and movement variation for workers.
- Examine intensity. Employers, Nogan said, should also consider varying tasks by degree of intensity. Some tasks require greater strength or force to complete than others and variation between higher and lower intensity tasks can help alleviate worker strain.
May 4, 2009
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