Currently, 20% of all American workers are over 65. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, that number will jump to 25% in another five years. While safety and health are vital to every workplace, this shift in the age demographic of workers makes issues of healthier workers more pressing because with aging comes a greater likelihood of both chronic health conditions and on-the-job injury. It’s important, then, to understand that appropriate programs and support in the workplace can help workers be productive longer.
The most common health conditions affecting older workers are arthritis and hypertension. The former impacts 47% of workers over the age of 55 and the latter, 44%. More than 75% of aging workers are estimated to have at least one chronic health condition that requires management. These figures have implications for both how well, and when, older workers can physically perform their duties.
Interestingly however, because of experience, increased caution, greater likelihood of following safety regulations, and awareness of relative physical limitations, older workers tend to experience fewer workplace injuries than younger colleagues. However, when accidents involving older workers do occur, the workers often require more time to heal and incidents affecting older workers are more likely to be fatal.
Employers increasingly see the value that older workers bring to the job. Older workers have greater institutional knowledge and usually more experience. They often possess more productive work habits than younger colleagues. They report lower stress levels on the job and, in general, get along better with their co-workers.
Workplaces have often, out of necessity, adapted to older workers. Both the Age Discrimination Employment Act of 1967 and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 prohibit workplace discrimination based on age and disability, respectively, and thus support the retention of older qualified workers despite limitations that may come from age or disability. However, some employers are more proactive than others, realizing that a well-designed, employee-centered approach to the physical nature and organization of work benefits all workers regardless of age. Workplace design, flexibility of the work schedule, and ergonomic interventions increasingly focus on the needs of older employees. Many workplace accommodations are easy and inexpensive to make. Modern orthotics, appropriate flooring and seating, optimal lighting, and new information technology hardware and software can help older individuals continue to work. New emphasis on job sharing, flexible work schedules, and work from home can support added years on the job.
For some useful strategies for preparing a more age-friendly work environment, check out the CDC’s webpage on Healthy Aging at Work.