Employers handle issues with aging workforce

DUNCANSVILLE — The workforce continues to age, but there are steps employers can take to deal with that problem.

“The implications of an aging workforce have become an issue over recent years. It is becoming more of an issue,” said Colleen Medlin, regional director of WorkStrategies at a Blair County Chamber of Commerce Safety Committee workshop Wednesday at Hoss’s Steak and Sea House.

According to Medlin, there are 76 million baby boomers who make up one-third of the U.S. workforce, and there are not enough young workers to replace them. There are

10 million workers older than 65.

The average age of the workforce in 1994 was 37.7, and it is projected to become 42.7 by 2024, Medlin said.

There are numerous physical changes with age that leads to issues.

Some of them include: decreased strength, muscular flexibility, joint range of motion, postural steadiness, grip strength, nervous system responses, visual capacity, mental processing and blood flow and tactile feedback, Medlin said.

“Strength and muscle changes with age is a natural process for our body. People can’t afford to retire, but can they meet the physical demands of the job?” Medlin asked.

The most common workplace accidents for workers 65 and older are falls.

“The number of people over the age of 65 who fall every year is 3 percent, but those which lead to fractures and spinal cord injuries are

87 percent,” Medlin said. “When it comes to employers, how many of you want to have employees older than 65?”

Older workers often experience vision problems — cataracts are a leading issue.

Steps to improve vision in the workplace include providing adequate lighting, UV glare and brightness protection and foreign object protection, Medlin said.

Musculoskeletal conditions can also be a problem.

“A lot of these are part of the aging process. They are not always a work injury,” Medlin said.

An example is osteoarthritis, as 600,000 Americans had knee replacements in 2011, and by 2030 that number will be 3.5 million, Medlin said.

Spinal stenosis and other deformities are more common, and rotator cuff tears are another common problem for aging workers.

However, Medlin said there are several solutions for employers to manage their aging workforce.

Some of those include preparing job descriptions with accurate physical demands, requiring post-offer and fit-for-duty testing, education programs, ergonomic assessments, conditioning programs and functional physical therapy and work conditioning.

“Job analysis reports are important. It drives me bonkers when patients don’t have a job analysis report. You need to do a job analysis of their job demands. You need a detailed job description,” Medlin said.

Post-offer and fit-for-duty testing is also important.

“Sometimes, when people apply, they are given a conditional job offer and go through physical testing. The tests are based on essential job functions. Even if they fail, the employer can still hire you, but you are taking a risk if you hire someone who doesn’t pass the test. Employers should hire physically qualified individuals,” Medlin said.

Fit-for-duty testing is legal.

“Under the (Americans with Disabilities Act), medical exams may be required when an employee suffers an injury on the job. Such an exam may be required when an employee wants to return to work,” Medlin said.

Education programs — such as safety education, behavior modification and stretching programs — are very important.

“We can work with employers to modify job demands such as increased use of mechanical lifts. We need to make sure the therapy is function based, make sure they are getting skilled active care that is job specific,” Medlin said.

Eighty percent of injuries are due to worker behavior, not the job description, Medlin said.

“We can educate the workers to reduce stress on their joints. We need to educate them on behavior and modify the job situation,” Medlin said.

Having a good safety committee can also be helpful, said Jon Mills, clinic

manager of NovaCare Rehabilitation in Lakemont.

Mills mentioned Albemarle Corp. of Tyrone as an example.

“They have a nurse on site,” Mills said.