Ergonomics, job fit can affect aging workers
Ergonomics, job fit can affect aging workers
Small steps can improve safety
America’s work force today is more mature than it used to be. The median age is greater, workers are living longer, and they are working to an older age. Being on the job at 65 or older puts different stresses on the body than it does at 45, making it more important that the work fits the worker.
Suzanne Bade, MPH, OTR, an occupational therapist with MWorks, the occupational health division of the University of Michigan Health System, works with individuals and with companies in ergonomic consulting for aging workers, a process MWorks calls "Ageonomics."
"With education and services within Ageono-mics, we can use ergonomics to address those factors specific to the aging population," she explains. "We look at the physical and mental characteristics of the worker as well as the job requirements, layout of the work environment, the tools and materials used, and how people perform their job."
The fact that the population is aging — a common projection is that by 2030, one in three Americans will be age 55 or older — means a more experienced work force. Bade says that attention to the physical changes of aging in the context of a workplace’s risk factors and taking steps to prevent injuries, occupational nurses can help older workers minimize injuries.
Fewer injuries, longer recovery
Bade says older workers don’t get hurt more often than younger ones, possibly because they choose their jobs more carefully or work more cautiously than their younger counterparts.
"But when they do get hurt, they may have longer recovery times due to chronic diseases like heart disease, diabetes, and arthritis that compound the healing process," she explains.
Older workers also experience a high rate of back injuries, but not because they are tackling work that is beyond their capabilities, Bade says. "Back injuries at any age usually don’t happen because of a single occurrence, but build up over time," she explains. "Eventually the body, like a machine, will wear down."
According to MWorks, the six most common ergonomic risk factors are awkward postures, repetitive motion, sustained postures, contact stress on soft tissue, vibration, and working in extreme temperatures. Employees who work where these risk factors are present should take some precautions to avoid injury. For example:
- If a worker is reaching, twisting, or bending her back, neck, and wrists, or holding fixed positions for a prolonged period of time, reorganize the work environment to allow for a variety of comfortable postures.
- If lots of physical effort is required to perform a task, try dividing the load to be lifted into smaller portions, using equipment like carts to help move materials, and get help when needed.
- If repetitive motion is part of the job, encourage the worker to take breaks, pace himself, and alternate tasks that use a variety of muscles.
- If the worker operates heavy machinery that vibrates, use effective barriers between the body and the vibration and allow time for periodic breaks.
- If employees work in extreme hot or cold environments, they should wear protective clothing, take frequent breaks, and give their bodies extra time to recover.
For older workers, perhaps even more than for younger ones, matching the worker with the work is important to help avoid injuries, Bade says.
"You look at the risk factors present [in the work], plus what risk factors might be compounded by the worker’s age," she says. "And for this, it’s really important to have really functional job descriptions that tell exactly what needs to be done in the job, so those hired and those still in the job know what’s expected."
Engaging the workers themselves helps them feel more involved and a part of solving the problems, plus it leads to a more accurate, thorough job description. Involving them in decisions about matching their skills, capabilities, and jobs keeps them emotionally healthy as well, Bade says.
When she conducts on-site training to educate supervisors and workers about working injury-free as they age, Bade focuses on risk reduction, accommodations for disabilities, and teaching workers to understand the changes they will undergo as they age.
"It’s important for employees to first be aware of their work environment and know the risks that come with certain work tasks," she says. It’s also important to remind older workers that taking care of their overall health — healthy diet, exercise, maintaining a work-recreation balance, and getting enough sleep — will help minimize work-related injuries.
"It’s also helpful for the employer to understand how to keep their employees healthy, and educate them about the Americans with Disabilities Act, so that it’s a winwin situation — employees get to keep jobs they like, and employers keep highly valuable workers on the job," she adds.
Keep arthritis aggravation down
Bade says for employees who develop arthritis as they age, some simple fixes, such as padding equipment so it doesn’t press on sore joints, can prevent aggravating the condition.
Increasing the size of pens or pencils can reduce grip pain for employees with arthritis; other equipment and tools can be fitted for gripping without as much force or pinching as well.
Office workers, too, should take stock of the ergonomics of their work habits, even if they are not yet suffering any age-related aches and pains, Bade says.
Sitting for long hours in the same position or in an awkward posture can lead eventually to stress on the hands, back, neck, and shoulders.
"If you think of the body as a machine, a machine needs to be oiled and greased, the parts have to line up right, and you have to change out parts if they get overused," Bade explains. "With our bodies, it’s difficult to change out parts, which is why it’s so important to use the body in the recommended postures, to keep the muscles balanced between movement and rest, and to set up the surrounding environment so that equipment or tools are nearby."
Developing safe, ergonomically sound work practices before age-related concerns arise can reduce injuries as workers approach retirement.
[For more information, contact:
- Suzanne Bade, MPH, OTR, Occupational Therapist, University of Michigan Health Systems MWorks program. E-mail: [email protected]. Web site: www.med.umich.edu/mworks.]
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