The Gray Shift Part 2: Using Ergonomy To Retain Valuable Older Workers

As workers age, the incidence of disability rises. A University of Wisconsin study comparing age groups showed disability increased from 9.5 percent for workers in the 18- to 24-year-old range, to 20 percent for workers in the 45- to 54-year-old range.

The first article of this series analyzed some of the workplace health and safety issues that materialize in an older workforce. This second piece will suggest pro-active steps employers can take to accommodate older workers, and prolong the careers of these valuable employees.

An Aging Workforce

Due to both economic and sociographic factors, more people are working later in life than ever before. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment among people aged 55 and older has increased to an all-time high of 40.4 percent, and U.S. Census data predicts that one-third of the U.S. workforce will be over 50 by 2016. Nearly 19 percent of Americans 65 or older are working today, compared to less than 14 percent just ten years ago. That represents 7.7 million workers over 65, and an increase of over 2 million in a decade. Even 20 percent of those over 70 years old are still working! In coming years, 93 percent of the growth in the U.S. labor force will come from workers ages 55 and older.

This is clearly a new demographic wave in the workforce, which I have deemed the “Gray Shift,” and one that employers cannot ignore. These workers bring a multitude of benefits to the workplace: strong work ethic, personal responsibility, and high levels of morale and enthusiasm. A Boston College study showed that older workers are more likely to have higher levels of engagement than younger workers, with “engagement” defined as “a positive … connection with work that motivates an employee to invest in getting the job done … with excellence.” Many employers have expressed concerns about the somewhat lackadaisical and unfocused work habits of the rising Generation Y, and the work demeanor of the over-50 population stands in stark and positive contrast. Clearly, this is a cohort that employers should want to keep in the fold.

These workers nonetheless have their vulnerabilities. As workers age, the incidence of disability rises. A University of Wisconsin study comparing age groups showed disability increased from 9.5 percent for workers in the 18- to 24-year-old range, to 20 percent for workers in the 45- to 54-year-old range. This number reached 42 percent for workers over 65.

As noted previously, over-50 Americans are healthier than ever. But as the body ages, strength, vision, and cognitive abilities decline, leading to a variety of symptoms and conditions. These can include a loss of range of motion and flexibility; declining strength; and reduced dexterity, vision, hearing, and mental acuity. Arthritis, high blood pressure, and obesity are also more common among the elderly. Demanding physical labor or perilous work environments only increase the likelihood of common musculoskeletal injuries such as sprains, strains, joint dislocation, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, neck problems, and lower back pain. This leads to a dilemma for employers: They want to keep these excellent workers on staff, but are wary of potential health-related costs. What can be done to prevent injury and maintain a positive, healthy workforce?

Value Proposition

To address these coming workforce demographic changes, employers must create a corporate culture that promotes both safety and wellness. Healthy workers and a safe workspace reduce costs and increase productivity, so these efforts will be repaid fully. Costs such as healthcare, workers compensation, and sick leave are reduced. By extending workers’ careers and enhancing job satisfaction, productivity increases while training and HR costs decline. While workers do appreciate these programs, they are not mere corporate largesse. Implementing these procedures and improvements is good business.


Even minor changes can significantly improve the safety and productivity of older workers. For example, increasing illumination enhances visual capacity and reduces both errors and accidents. Lighting walkways and equipping stairs with non-slip strips can help reduce slips and falls. Minimizing repetitive muscular motion and awkward postures reduces stress. Work areas can be structured and engineered in ways that reduce extraneous physical requirements. Augmenting worker strength with mechanized assistance for lifting, transporting, and/or work positioning reduces the likelihood of both repetitive stress injuries and also traumas from mishandling or dropping. Optimal positioning of work allows the worker to use their strongest muscles in a balanced manner. Structuring work tasks to eliminate awkward reaching, bending, or lifting reduces back injuries. Other precautions include providing adequate clearance and maintaining safety guards and warnings.

Implementing ergonomic improvements does not have to be complicated or difficult. Many manufacturing facilities seek out the expertise of a certified Environmental, Health and Safety (EHS) engineer in order to assure that their workplace safety measures are maintained at an optimal level. By combining ergonomically designed workplaces with a corporate wellness program, older workers’ terms of employment can be extended by years.

The value of such improvements is evidenced by the reported ROI of recent worker-safety projects. Managers of Texas Instruments (TI), with more than 30,000 employees, improved the work environment and productivity of the company through targeted ergonomics programs. By implementing ergonomic assessments, corrective actions, and education, ergonomics-related injuries at TI decreased by 91 percent, and the number of lost work days decreased by 95 percent between 1999 and 2007. Coors Brewing Company’s health and productivity program uses proactive measures to assess health risk early and provides incentives for preventative health compliance. At Coors, 75 percent of the long-term disability claims came from employees over 40 years old, and most of those claims (54 percent) were musculoskeletal in nature. Coors’ creative health and productivity programs have resulted in a savings of $5.50 per $1 spent on physical fitness, while absenteeism has declined by 18 percent.

Clearly, employers who have taken action on the dual older-worker issues of safety and wellness have seen excellent returns on their investment. Updating production areas with ergonomic equipment improves both health and productivity. For example, Kevin Wilson, a chief engineer at Turbo Combustor Technology, says, “Welding seams on helicopter exhaust ducts can be awkward. To hold and position these ducts and to simultaneously get access for welding from any direction used to be a challenge. Using an ergonomic work positioner enables easy manipulation to any necessary work position. The weld team is happy, and within a short period of time we have been able to achieve improved efficiency, productivity, quality, and safety.”

While some companies are preparing for the “Gray Shift,” too many are not. Fewer than one in seven companies have adopted concrete strategies addressing the issue. For a wide variety of reasons – including competitiveness, worker retention, managing health care and workers’ compensation costs, and productivity – this pressing demographic issue and the related issues of workplace safety, health maintenance, and EHS demand attention from all levels of management, from facility managers all the way to the executive suite.

Earl Hagman, PhD, MSEE, MBA, has a doctorate in Occupational Health. He is the President of Ergotech Incorporated, which designs and manufactures ergonomic workspace equipment which increases operator safety and performance.

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