It’s a well known fact that the percentage of workers in the United States above age 55 is growing. According to the Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), in 2020, 1 in 4 workers will be 55 and older. This is up from 19% in 2010. The projected growth rate for those 65 and above is even higher between now and 2050. Going forward, the number of workers 55 and older will continue to expand. This is driven, in part, by the fact that 44% of the workforce is between 45 and 54, so the aging pipeline continues to grow.
In addition to that, the nature of the work has changed. Specifically, most of the work is full time versus part time; a trend that was flipped about two decades ago. Today, about ⅔ of employment is full time for this segment.
The numbers of aging workers are even greater for frontline workers, such as truck drivers, longshoremen, and other jobs that require physical labor. For example, the American Trucking Association projects over 1 million truck drivers are approaching retirement age. Implications for the aging workforce are numerous. For companies employing frontline workers, injury reduction is a top concern among these implications.
You may be surprised that older workers are injured less frequently (1). Their experience on the job tends to give them a bit more wisdom on how to avoid injuries. However, when injuries do happen, they tend to be more severe.
This means higher costs to address the injuries, more days away from work and other increased indirect costs. For example, a 2014 Survey of Occupational Injuries and Illnesses showed that the median days away from work (DAFW) for age groups 45-54, 55-64, and 65+ were 12, 15, and 17, respectively (2). In contrast, the median for all ages was 9 days for all industries included in the survey.
Even more impactful, these injuries have a major effect on the employee’s work and home life.
Given their skills and experience, there are good reasons to not only keep the aging Industrial Athlete around a bit longer, but also on the job as much as possible:
- Lower absenteeism
- Higher retention
- Strong work ethic
- High productivity
- Transfer of our institutional knowledge to younger generations
- Transfer of knowledge from younger generations (e.g. use of technology)
This further raises the need to focus on keeping this segment of your workforce safe and injury free. Our focus at Worklete is just that: reduce musculoskeletal injuries for hard working folks in physically demanding jobs.
With that, we embrace the concept of the Industrial Athlete in all forms. It doesn’t stop at a given age. Even as workers age, we believe you can always put them in a position to be injury free.
So, how do we best support an aging Industrial Athlete?
THE INDUSTRIAL ATHLETE TODAY
A reminder of our definition of Industrial Athletes: Hard-working folks with physically demanding jobs who are pushing, pulling, lifting, carrying, climbing, and performing other feats that require repetitive and/or strenuous body movements. Movements that, if performed incorrectly, can lead to injuries. Movements that, if performed correctly, can lead to stronger bodies.
About 6 years ago, when I turned the half-century mark, my ability to work out at a relatively high level was feasible. At home, I also could carry lumber, saws, and other materials when building sheds, fences, and other physical activities without much thought to the effects on my body. Today? Not so much.
Nagging lower back pain, squeaky hamstrings, and a rusty shoulder now remind me in their own way that I need to change my approach to physical activities. This includes working out at a gym, performing everyday tasks like yard work, or simply picking up the remote from the floor.
It’s no secret: as you age, your physical capacities change. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you lose these capacities altogether. You can adapt to the changes. This really hit home a few months ago when I attended one of our ‘Champion’ training sessions for a new customer in the maritime industry.
As part of our training, our coaches instructed us to organize on our own into small groups of 4 to 5 future Champions each . Not too surprisingly, a couple of the groups ended up being mostly ‘elders’. I migrated to one of those teams with trainees around my age. I then played my AARP card to ingratiate myself with new found friends.
At first, I noticed a hesitancy in them that their younger and more eager teammates did not have. This is where the motivating aspects come into play that I wrote about last month. Participating side by side with them made them more comfortable with the assignments. They realized I was in the same boat with them (pun intended). By midday, they were participating as eagerly as their less experienced counterparts.
However, I also noticed that each of us had to address our personal physical challenges. For me, it’s a lower back that has long since worn out its warranty. For the guy next to me, it was his hips. For a third, it was his rotator cuff. All of these ailments and more can be common for frontline workers. And it’s even more common for our age group.
As our training group went from task to task, we took guidance from our coaches on how to position and move our bodies. This included relatively simple tasks, such as how to take steps up and down, to the more arduous tasks they perform on their ships. Once you understand the basics of body positioning and movement, it can be fairly straightforward and largely common sense to reduce injuries for a given task.
However, when we came across a more difficult task, such as lifting and carrying a tension bar, we had to consider our individual limitations. I found this thing to be a beast. It’s a long metal rod, and in the middle, what is essentially another rod to provide tension between two sets of chains. It’s beyond heavy and the T shape makes it awkward to pick up or move.
I found it to be a challenge. In the back of my mind I was thinking two things:
- How do I lift this without aggravating or even re-injuring my back?
- How do I move this without that middle rod swinging at me and causing an injury in “critical places”
The last thing I wanted to do was create an impromptu lesson on “how to carry someone out on a stretcher”. Instead, we talked through the best practices in body movement with our coaches. We then mixed in the years of experience the guys had and adjusted our approach for each of us given our unique ailments.
The lesson I took from this is that one size doesn’t fit all. There are proper body movements that form the basis of injury prevention. From there, you need to consider any unique limitations or challenges that an individual has. Adapt the movement to the individual’s challenges, and you can put them in the best position to stay injury free.
SUPPORTING PHYSICAL TASKS
Here are 5 suggestions that may help in these situations. I put these together from the perspective of the 55+-year-old (“I” refers to your employee):
#1 Recognize that not all bodies and capabilities are the same
It’s easy to come up with a proper movement and assume it’s one size fits all. That isn’t the case. Start with the fundamental movement. Then acknowledge that some folks may have to make adjustments to effectively and safely perform that task.
#2: Set expectations - my goal post has changed
I might not be able to accomplish tasks like my younger self. Communicate with me about any challenges I have in performing my job safely. These challenges could be anything from previous injuries, balance and hearing. Reset expectations so that I can still be as productive as possible, and still remain injury free in the process.
#3: Change up my options
I may not be able to get a specific task done by myself. It may be a task that you can remove from my responsibilities. Also, in some situations you can make it a practice to give me a partner in certain situations. That tension bar was a great example. It would be absolutely necessary for me to have a partner, even though I saw a couple of young bucks hauling them around.
#4: Increase my chances of staying injury free
This is a great post by our founder explaining why ergonomics is not enough to maximize injury reduction. Still, ergonomics, stretch and flex, and performance measurements can lay a great foundation for safety and injury prevention. It can help prevent slips, trips, and falls. You might even be able to remove tasks with a change in structure and design.
Use these elements as a basis. Then teach me how to properly move my body for each task. As well, encourage me to stay fit. Exercise is arguably more important for both work and personal life at this age. This combination maximizes my opportunity to stay injury free.
#5: Accountability and feedback
You should hold me accountable for my well being. As well, the management and leadership teams should hold themselves accountable for my well being at the same time. With that, just as in any part of my job, providing feedback focused on reducing injuries is critical. This applies to tracking my completion of injury reduction programs, real time feedback on the job, and survey results across the employee population. Also realize that my body is giving me feedback constantly. Don’t let me put pride before common sense. If you notice any challenges I’m having, such as a limp or being winded, call it out. Lastly, I owe you feedback of my own regarding the programs efficacy.
I’ve learned over the years that as my body changes, I need to change with it. I’m motivated by that realization. Your employees can learn the same. You can help them with that realization.
What challenges are you facing with an aging workforce? How have you addressed them?
Next month, I’ll address the fear of change in the aging Industrial Athlete - 55 years and beyond!
Wondering how other world-class organizations are tackling safety? Check out 3 Companies Prioritizing Safety.
And follow Worklete on Linkedin to stay up-to-date on the latest in injury prevention, safety culture, and operational efficiency.
Scott Crawford is the vice president of sales for Worklete, a technology platform that reduces musculoskeletal injuries for transportation, shipping and logistics companies by over 50% on average, saving companies millions of dollars a year in direct and indirect workers' compensation costs.
(1) Aging, sex, and cost of medical treatment. Kim H, Moline J, Dropkin JJ Occup Environ Med. 2013 May; 55(5):572-8. [PubMed] [Ref list]
(2) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Survey of Occupational Injury and Illness, in cooperation with California Department of Industrial Relations.