Workplace Ergonomics and Your Baby Boomer Workforce
Why it is Important to Keep Safe and Retain Your Aging Employees
Baby Boomers and Older Gen Xers make up a significant portion of today’s workforce. These groups have an abundance of expertise and knowledge that keeps businesses running at peak performance.
The problem for organizations is that these older workers are going to be exiting the workforce, taking their knowledge with them – in particular, in the manufacturing industry; this is commonly known as “The Brain Drain”.
“By 2020, 25 million Baby Boomers, who make up more than 40 percent of the U.S. labor force, will be exiting the workforce in large numbers and leaving many jobs to be filled. With their departure, the work characteristics that define the Baby Boomer generation — results-driven, ambitious, idealistic, competitive, optimistic, and people-oriented — may be lost unless companies creatively develop strategies to simultaneously retain older workers and transition their knowledge to younger workers.” (Morton, Foster, & Sedlar, 2005).
“These workers will also take decades of accumulated organizational knowledge with them, and this “brain drain” could result in the loss of key information about customers or practices that could be devastating to organizations.” (Pitt-Catsouphes & Matz-Costa, 2009).
The reality is that Baby Boomers and Older Gen Xers are “aging out” of the workforce. They may be experiencing physical limitations which lead them to get ready for retirement. As they retire, there will be a mass exodus of crucial business intelligence that goes with them.
Proactive Ergonomic Strategies for the Aging Workforce
There are many ways to accommodate and encourage older worker to remain in the workforce longer to maximize the expertise of older workers and to provide more time to hand down crucial knowledge:
- Partial retirement and flexible work options
- Creating a new role or adapting job duties
- Recruitment and retention strategies that focus on age diversity in the workforce
- Employee engagement (especially important to older workers)
- Implementing workplace ergonomics best practices with a focus on the needs of older workers
In order to minimize performance declines related to age-related issues (including physical, cognitive and sensory), it is important to implement preventative disability management and proactive ergonomic strategies including:
- Ergonomic design
- Ergonomic job analysis
- Assistive technology
- Job accommodations
Ergonomics Plus has a great article about ergonomics and the aging workforce and points out some key ergonomic principles to consider:
- Work in neutral postures. Working with the body in a neutral position reduces stress and strain on your musculoskeletal system.
- Allow for posture changes. Working in the same posture or sitting for prolonged periods of time is bad for you. Your body’s musculoskeletal (or movement) system is designed to move. Arrange workstations and tasks to allow for changing postures.
- Work from the “power zone”. The power zone is also referred to as the “hand shake zone” — this is an easy way to remember the optimal location to perform work.
- Provide good lighting. A common issue with older workers is lighting. Visual acuity deteriorates with age, so make sure work areas are properly lit.
- Have a good grip. Providing “power grips” instead of pinch grips for jobs and tasks is another ergonomics “low hanging fruit” to help accommodate aging workers.
We would add to that list a focus on ergonomic design. This is particularly important in certain industries:
- Ergonomic Considerations in the Automotive Manufacturing Industry
- Safety and the Entertainment Industry – Theatrical / Studio / Stage
- Blueprint to Design Medical Equipment with Operators in Mind
In many instances, upon ergonomic job analysis, it can be determined that small changes like implementing ergonomic casters or adjusting handhold heights can make a massive positive impact on ergonomics and prevent workplace injuries to employees, particularly older employees.
Proactive Ergonomics for the Aging Workforce Resources
For more information about proactive ergonomics for the aging workforce, we’ve gathered some great resources for you:
- Ergonomic Tips for the Aging Workforce, Humantech Ergonomics
- Keeping Your Aging Workforce Productive with Ergonomics, Workplace Safety & Prevention Services
- Employer Strategies for Responding to an Aging Workforce, The National Technical Assistance and Research Center
- Ergonomics and the Aging Workforce — Designing a Safe and Productive Workplace, Ergonomics Plus
- Aging Workers, Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
- Operations: Ergonomic Design for an Aging Workforce, Industry Week
Addressing the needs of the aging workforce is crucial to avoiding “The Brain Drain”. Older workers should be respected and valued and can continue to contribute positively to organizations for years to come. Implementing strategies to retain and protect older workers is important and can mean longevity and productivity benefits for the organization. Additionally, younger workers can benefit from older workers’ knowledge and expertise to help prepare the next generation to lead the organization.
For a thorough overview of workplace ergonomics, download the Guide to Workplace Ergonomics.