Ergonomic Design for an Aging Workforce

Injury Prevention in Older Workers through Ergonomic Design

With ergonomic injuries making up roughly a third of all injury claims (BLS), companies are taking steps to minimize worker injury; especially for those that are in their 50s and above. The focus on older workers is because highly experienced workers are a valuable asset to their company due to their extensive knowledge and productivity. But as their physical capabilities lessen, certain functions become harder to perform and that is when ergonomic injuries start to occur.

Empty old female hands in black and whiteIndustry Week published an interview with Lance Perry, a senior ergonomist and engineer with Zurich Services Corp. who had this to say; “Many people view the aging workforce as a liability, and to some extent it might be, but it is also an opportunity. This is where your experience lies, this is where your job knowledge lies, and this is where, in some respects, loyalty lies.”


A Rising Demographic

In 2013, the average age of highly skilled manufacturing workers in the United States was 56 years. For the most part, their physical capabilities have deteriorated somewhat since they began their career in their twenties. It makes sense then, that companies must make ergonomic modifications in order to maintain the level of productivity and reduce the risk of injury. “With this shift, we first must appreciate the difference between the younger and aging person, and then make sure we design accordingly so that these differences don’t become an obstacle,” says Perry.

An Industry Week tells of another story about how Xerox has addressed the rising cost and increased risk of ergonomic injuries with its aging employees. They stress the importance of prevention in dealing with musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) which made up nearly half of their work-related injuries, “We have strong processes to reduce ergonomic stresses in the workplace. (Our ergonomic program is) designed to provide simple ergonomic strategies, as well as awareness of the normal aging process, to reduce personal risk to employees.

Dealing with Sarcopenia

Part of the solution is the re-design of work stations and machinery to accommodate issues such as declining reach and strength due to flexibility and muscle loss (sarcopenia).

In the office, ergonomic chairs that adjust up and down accommodate people of any height. But in the warehouse or manufacturing plant, adjustability becomes a little more technical.

For example, navigating a ladder up or down can become more cumbersome for the older worker while the younger employee conquers it with ease. So the question becomes, “how can you retrofit to eliminate the ladder, yet still get the job done?”

Perry, in reference to age-neutral design says, “If it is good for an aging person, it will also be just as good for a younger person”. The differences between young workers and those that have been on the floor for two decades involve physicality, physiological and psychosocial analysis. Recognizing these differences that include decreased strength, hearing and balance as well as endurance, allow companies to re-design equipment and workstations that accommodate all ages of employees.

Empty old female hands in black and whitePerry asks the ultimate question of manufacturers for their aging employees.  “What can you do to keep them on the job longer and still be productive and safe in the process?”

Manufacturers also are adopting more preventative measures to reduce injury through the use of on-site Employee Maintenance Centers (EMC). InjuryFree, a leader in ergonomic injury prevention, places trained professionals in the workplace to treat employee pain before it becomes an injury and rehabilitate injured workers.