Monday, October 21, 2013

Safety For Workers of All Ages

As the average age of retirement rises, workers continuously stay in the workforce at older ages, and 13.5% of today’s workers in the U.S. are 65 or older. The evolving workforce brings more diversity in age to many organizations, creating new challenges around planning safety for both older and younger workers.

Earlier this month, at the National Safety Congress & Expo, Robert Pater, the managing director of SSA/MoveSMART, presented “Sustaining Safety: Both Older and Younger Workers” to provide tips on how safety professionals can meet the needs of workers of all ages.

One of the most significant challenges older workers face requires a change of mindset to overcome negative beliefs about aging, says Pater. “You can teach an old dog new tricks; it’s just harder,” Pater says. He notes that many of today’s oldest workers are held back by self-fulfilling prophecies, explaining that when older workers think they cannot complete a task, they are often unable to do it even if they try.

Pater suggests that older workers “move from regretting to resetting,” by taking on a more positive outlook regarding their own abilities. “It’s never too late to change,” he says. “It’s possible to be stronger at 70 than at 30, but you’ve got to work harder.”

As part of his presentation, Pater outlined 5 skillsets to focus on that affect the safety of workers of all ages:

  1. Balance. During strenuous activity, the more balance an individual has, the less muscle s/he will need. This philosophy, often used in martial arts training, can also apply to work activities such as moving heavy objects. Pater recommends that if workers are reluctant to apply balance techniques to their job duties, safety professionals should take the time to show them how balance can be used in a recreational activity they enjoy, such as golf. “If you can find out what they really like and show them how balance improves that, they’ll listen,” says Pater.
  2. Agility. Range of motion and reaction time are important in any job requiring significant physical movement. Pater believes a key to expanding one’s agility is to think in terms of eye-hand coordination rather than hand-eye coordination. He explains that if your eyes look as far to one direction as they can before you turn your head in that direction, you will be able to turn your head farther than you would otherwise. Similarly, when lifting heavy objects, looking at the point to which you are moving the object can make lifting easier than it is when looking at the object in your grasp.
  3. Energy. Breathing techniques can often help workers save energy when performing job tasks. For example, many people have a tendency to hold their breath when leaning over or pushing something, which causes them to tire quickly. Workers can save energy by letting their breath out slowly while bending over and by remembering to breathe while pushing heavy loads.
  4. Focus. People of all ages need to be mentally active. Just as people need to keep moving in order to retain the ability to move, people need to keep learning in order to retain the ability to learn.
  5. Strength. Older workers especially suffer from cumulative physical trauma, including tissue deterioration, which Pater likens to the weakening of a piece of metal that has been bent in the same spot over and over again. Workers of all ages can lessen the damaging effects of repetitive tasks by learning how to safely use alternative muscles during strenuous work activities.

Watch for a future blog post presenting 9 keys to sustaining safety for workers of all ages.