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Employers should work to prevent injuries among older workers

By 2024, older workers will make up a full quarter of the labor market, according to government estimates. In 2015, workers 55 and older were involved in 35 percent of all fatal workplace accidents. Are the two facts related?

After all, even normal aging is associated with a variety of physical issues, including changes in balance and response time. Accumulated damage over time can reduce hearing and vision. Aging is often associated with osteoporosis, or brittle bones. These changes "could potentially make a workplace injury into a much more serious injury or a potentially fatal injury," noted one public health epidemiologist.

Older workers might be more prone to injury. Or, they may be more likely to suffer more serious injuries than younger workers in similar accidents. Whatever the reason for the high rate of accidents among older workers, they make up a large -- and increasing -- sector of the workforce. There needs to be a greater focus on our aging workforce when it comes to injury prevention.

"That's what's driving the change right now," says the co-director of the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College. "Changes are needed. These workers are staying in their jobs."

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, is the federal agency responsible for researching work-related injuries and illnesses and their prevention. The agency has several recommendations for helping older workers avoid acute, repetitive-stress, and other types of injuries on the job:

  • Reduce or eliminate noise hazards and other environmental issues in the workplace, such as slip- and trip-hazards.
  • Ensure that the workplace is ergonomically sound by providing appropriate workstations, chairs, lighting and floor coverings.
  • Organize work so that workers stand and move around regularly rather than remain seated all day. Examples include providing standing desks or organizing regular on-site physical activities.
  • Offer flexible schedules, work locations and tasks.
  • Train all workers in team lifting and other techniques where teams work together to reduce the risk of injury during potentially dangerous activities.
  • Promote healthy lifestyles and strive to make reasonable accommodations for medical self-care at work and for medical appointments.

"Our emphasis is productive aging," said the co-director of NIOSH's National Center for Productive Aging and Work.

Whatever role you play in the workplace, make safety for all employees your emphasis. That includes making simple changes to working conditions that support older workers.

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