The Aging Workforce - Physical Changes Require Ergonomic Intervention

The Aging Workforce - Physical Changes Require Ergonomic Intervention
The definition of an aging worker varies greatly depending upon the source. Legally, an elderly worker is considered to be 40 or older (The Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967). Other agencies consider an aging employee to be 45 years or older (The Committee for Economic Development’s New Opportunities for Older Workers). As consumers, a senior is often considered to be 55 years or older. And a survey of human resource professionals revealed that management varies greatly in their opinion with the age ranging being between 40 and 70 years (Society for Human Resource Management, June 2003).

Contrary to popular belief, changes in memory, logical thinking and ability to perform a task are only slightly affected by the normal aging process. Any significant loss should be evaluated medically. The perception that older workers are a drain on a company’s resources is erroneous and may cost a company one of their most valuable assets. Elderly workers have experience-based knowledge, show better judgment and increased accuracy in performance, and are better able to handle familiar tasks than younger persons (Utah State University, The perception that an elderly worker is less able to perform an activity may be due more to the slowing down of physical functions and sensory processing rather than by any actual decline in intellectual functioning.

Not too surprisingly, the legal definition of aging corresponds with the time-frame at which normal physical changes begin to occur. As the number of aging employees in our workforce continues to increase, these changes need to be addressed in order to ensure productivity, safety, and comfort in the work environment. Knowledge of these physical impairments and how they affect work function is essential so that they can be accommodated for with simple, ergonomic solutions. The corporate benefit is the retention of a healthy, dependable, knowledgeable and skilled employee.

Vision is often the first sense that is noticeably affected with age. In the 4th decade, the pupil, responsible for regulating the amount of light that enters the eye, becomes smaller and the eye lens becomes thicker and yellows. The pupil may react more slowly to changes in darkness and light. The eye becomes more sensitive to glare and the eyes are less adaptable in the dark. It becomes more difficult to focus and read smaller print (increased nearsightedness), depth perception decreases, and visual field and peripheral vision may become more limited. Distinguishing between pastel colors, especially blues and greens, is more difficult.

Changes in the ability to hear certain sounds also commonly occur in the 4th and 5th decades. The eardrum can thicken and the bones and cochlear hairs undergo age-related changes. These changes cause loss in the sharpness of sounds and the ability to hear certain sound pitches. It is more difficult to hear others speaking, especially in a noisy environment.

The inner ear, responsible for balance, can also be affected with changes in the auditory system. As balance and gait are affected, there is an increased risk for falls.

By the 6th decade, lean body mass decreases and seniors may experience a 15-20% loss in muscle strength as compared to when they were 20. Bones become more brittle as density is lost. Osteoporosis places employees at higher risk of fractures during accidents.

Joint pain, stiffness and swelling become more frequent as cartilage breaks down and bones begin rubbing on bone. The hand may feel stiffer and the ability to perform fine motor activity is more challenging with these arthritic joint changes. The shoulders may become more stooped and rounded because of habitual work-related postures, as well as age-related changes (such as the gel-like discs between the spinal vertebrae becoming less fluid and thinner). Reflexes begin to slow down or may be lost as the nervous system loses cells and weight and transmits nerve impulses more slowly.

Skin becomes thinner and less elastic and the amount of subcutaneous fat is reduced causing difficulties in body temperature regulation. There is less tolerance to heat and cold. Bruising may occur more easily.

The quality of sleep is more readily affected by changes in work schedule and work environment.

This is Part 2 of a 3 part series on the aging workforce.

Part 1 explored the trend of an increase in the aging workforce and the benefits of retaining mature and experienced workers.

Part 3 will address specific ergonomic accommodations that can lessen the impact of age-related physical changes.

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