At Work: How Old is too Old?

Updated on September 13, 2016

randybosssmBy Randy Boss, CRA, CRM, SHRM-SCP

Are you too old to be working at your job? Well, if you are at work right now and you have a Sony Walkman clipped to your belt and you’re listening to songs on a cassette by any group that had its first big hit before 1960, chances are there is somebody above you thinking, “Hmmm… maybe.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2015 one in every five American workers will be over the age of 65, and in 2020 one in four American workers will be over 55. That’s a startling statistic that will have a huge effect America’s businesses. Although there is no agreement on what age a worker is considered an “older worker,” there is no argument that the aging workforce phenomenon is real. These facts have made the issue of healthier workers, especially older ones, much more pressing. It should be a high priority at any workplace to manage this risk by promoting safety, health and well-being of the workforce, especially as workers age.

More babies were born in 1946 than ever before and that trend continued until 1964. Baby Boomers, those people born between 1946 and 1964, are now between age 70 and 52. With the elimination of mandatory retirement, the enactment of age discrimination laws, better life expectancy and health, increased costs to replace employee benefits provided to full time employees, and the loss in retirement accounts during the recent economy swan dive, many workers now choose to or must remain in the workforce longer than they had originally planned. And for most of them, early retirement is largely a thing of the past. 

To add to the problem is a shortage of qualified workers. As the economy continues to slowly recover and millions of job openings are expected to appear over the next decade, there is a growing call for more educated workers to fill those positions. According to a 2013 study from researchers at Georgetown University, the current higher education graduation rate is stagnant, and the economy will face a shortage of five million workers with the necessary education and training by 2020.

So what can we do to help keep these workers healthy and safe so they can continue to provide for themselves and retain their skills until they want to retire and not because they have to retire because they are sick or injured?  It’s all about companies managing their risk.

We need to recognize that our bodies change as we age. Experts tell us that people reach full physical maturity or development by age 25. Then, after a period of relative stability, our bodies begin to show signs of aging. Most of these changes are first noticed at ages 40 or 50, but changes can occur (or start) as early as 20 or 25. These changes include:

  • Lose of muscular strength and range of joint movement: In general, people lose 15 to 20% of their strength from the ages of 20 to 60. Older employees may be able to perform the same tasks as a younger worker, but they may be working closer to their maximum level. Keep in mind that, for example, highly repetitive motions — doing the same thing, over and over again — can cause physical problems at any age. Job rotation can help avoid this.
  • As we age, the body loses some ‘range of motion’ and flexibility: People may be used to certain range of movements at one task or workstation. Being less flexible or able to reach could cause problems in some unpredictable situations that require unusual movements. Consider having an ergonomics expert evaluate workstations and make recommended adjustments.
  • Cardiovascular and respiratory systems: The ability of the heart, lungs and circulatory system to carry oxygen decreases. Between the age of 30 and 65, the functional breathing capacity can reduce by 40%. These changes can affect the ability to do extended heavy physical labor and reduce the body’s ability to adjust to hot and cold conditions. The American Heart Association recommends 30 minutes a day, five times a week of moderate exercise to slow down this process.
  • Regulation of posture and balance: In general people may find it harder to maintain good posture and balance. When seated or standing still, this may not be a problem. However, accidents that happen because someone loses their balance do happen more often with age. Work that requires precise adjustments, strong muscular effort (including lifting and carrying), joint movements at extreme angles, or those done on a slippery or unstable surface, will be affected by poorer posture. Unexpected bumps or shocks may cause a more serious problem than with a younger worker.
  • Sleep Regulation: As we age, our body is not able to regulate sleep as well as it used to. How long a person sleeps, and how well they sleep, can additionally be disrupted by changing work hours or by light and noise.
  • Thermoregulation (Body Temperature): Our bodies are less able to maintain internal temperatures as well as less able to adjust to changes in external temperature due to physical activity. This change means that older workers may find heat or cold more difficult to deal with than when they were younger. It also means that if they are doing hard manual labor, they may get overheated more easily.
  • Vision (Vision changes with age): We notice we cannot see or read from certain distances as well as we used to without glasses. Changes also occur in how well you can see in the areas to the side of you (peripheral vision), how exact, clear, and “unfuzzy” things appear, how far away things seem, and resistance to glare and light transmission. Brighter lighting (that is suitable for the task) and well laid-out documents, which avoid small print, are important.
  • Auditory (Hearing): We may not be able to hear as well at higher frequencies (high pitch sounds). Most often, this change is noticed as the inability to listen to a particular voice or sound in a noisy environment. People who work with a lot of background noise may have difficulty hearing verbal instructions. To satisfy OSHA it is important to do baseline audiograms and annual audiograms for employees that are exposed to excessive noise.

Here are a few simple workplace solutions recommended by National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) that will prepare a workplace for an older, healthier, and safer workforce. They don’t cost very much but they can have huge benefits if implemented with input from workers and supported by all layers of management.

  • Prioritize workplace flexibility.  Workers prefer jobs that offer more flexibility over those that offer more vacation days.  To the extent possible, give workers a say in their schedule, work conditions, work organization, work location and work tasks. 
  • Match tasks to abilities.  Use self-paced work, self-directed rest breaks and less repetitive tasks.
  • Avoid prolonged, sedentary work – it’s bad for workers at every age.  Consider sit/stand workstations and walking workstations for workers who traditionally sit all day. Provide onsite physical activity opportunities or connections to low-cost community options.
  • Manage noise hazards (including excess background noise), slip/trip hazards, and physical hazards, conditions that can challenge an aging workforce more.
  • Provide ergo-friendly work environments — workstations, tools, floor surfaces, adjustable seating, install better lighting where needed, and screens and surfaces with less glare. 
  • Utilize teams and teamwork strategies for aging-associated problem solving.  Workers closest to the problem are often best equipped to find the fix.
  • Provide health promotion and lifestyle interventions including physical activity, healthy meal options, tobacco cessation assistance, risk factor reduction and screenings. Implement coaching and onsite medical care if there are a significant number of employees in close proximity to each other. Accommodate medical self-care in the workplace and time away for health visits.
  • Invest in training and building worker skills and competencies at all age levels. Help older employees adapt to new technologies, often a concern for employers and older workers. 
  • Proactively manage reasonable accommodations and the return-to-work process after illness or injury absences.
  • Require aging workforce management skills training for supervisors.  Include a focus on the most effective ways to manage a multi-generational workplace.

We hear from many of our clients that the average age of their workforce is going up which drives up the cost of their employee benefits. On the flip side they say that older workers are very dependable, have a commitment to their job, and bring some wisdom to the job. These are all the traits you want in an employee. It’s essential that we put thought and resources into keeping these employees healthy and safe at work and at home. 

Randy Boss is a Certified Risk Architect at Ottawa Kent in Jenison, MI. As a Risk Architect he designs, builds and implements risk management and insurance plans for middle market companies in the areas of human resources, property/casualty & benefits. He has 38 years experience and has been at Ottawa Kent for 33 years. He is a lead instructor for the Institute of Benefit & Wellness Advisors, training agents how to bring risk management to benefits and cofounder of, an OSHA compliance and injury management platform. Randy can be reached at [email protected].

Throughout the year, our writers feature fresh, in-depth, and relevant information for our audience of 40,000+ healthcare leaders and professionals. As a healthcare business publication, we cover and cherish our relationship with the entire health care industry including administrators, nurses, physicians, physical therapists, pharmacists, and more. We cover a broad spectrum from hospitals to medical offices to outpatient services to eye surgery centers to university settings. We focus on rehabilitation, nursing homes, home care, hospice as well as men’s health, women’s heath, and pediatrics.