The Issue

Most employers are finding out about a harsh reality that they must come to grips with in their organizations—the aging work force. Those of us in the safety profession are going to be affected dramatically, and we need to get involved now in order to get ahead of this trend before it is too late. The U.S. Department of Labor statistics shows that over the past decade, workers in the 45 to 55 year-old category have increased 49% and now make up 44% of the workforce. The age group over 55 has grown to 21% of the workforce.

Another major factor with the American workforce is that it is getting more and more obese. In fact, nearly 35% of the American workforce is considered obese. By some accounts, that percentage is actually higher. As a glimpse into the future, a 2013 Gallup poll revealed that 37% of working age respondents indicated they expect to work beyond age 65. Gallup reported that only 22% responded the same way in 2003 and only 16% in 1995. Given this projected "aging" of America's workforce, are America's employers prepared to effectively address the associated increase in workers' compensation (WC) claims? An aging and overweight workforce could spell disaster if we do not act accordingly.

Research indicates that there is a negative impact on heath and function of employees that are getting older and are obese. Obesity doubles work limitations, elevates the heart rate, increases blood pressure, and reduces lung function. It slows reaction times and decreases range of motion. The aging workforce has decreased strength, reduced muscle mass,4 reduced fitness levels, lower aerobic capacity, increased body fat (double in many cases), poor visual acuity, poorer audio acuity, and slower cognitive speed and function. Compile obesity and aging together, and the effects are exponential. To be blunt, your employees are not able to do the task they once did. They will be slower in doing a task, need more rest periods, require better lighting at work stations, need limited lifting requirements, require sit/stand work stations options, and need more time for recovery in the event of an injury. The question you and your organizations need to ask yourself is will we be able to make these adjustments and still be productive, have a quality product, and achieve our safety goals. If the answer is no, then you need to start developing a program to get ahead of the curve.

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