The Safety Professional’s Role in Protecting an Aging Workforce




Although we hear much about how baby boomers will soon retire in increasingly greater numbers, there is less information about how those boomers are working productively and safely in the workplace today, despite evolving medical needs. No one can avoid the fact that, as we age, we develop new health risks and heal slower from injuries. So what are safety professionals doing to address these issues and help keep these knowledgeable and experienced professionals active at work?


This is the question that Bill Spiers, vice president and risk control services manager for the insurance broker Lockton Cos., set out to answer in his white paper, “A Safety Tsunami: The Baby Boomer Effect on Worker’s Compensation.” Spiers took the time to speak with the Workplace Safety E-Newsletter about the impetus behind this study, his surprising findings and the strategies that safety professionals can put in place today to protect the intellectual capital in their workforce.



Q: What led you to undertake this study?


A: Two years ago when I turned 50 I began to think about my peer group and the folks that I grew up with in relation to my job and what I do, which is to consult with employers on how to minimize their risk and improve their safety. So I really started on a journey to understand [aging’s impact on safety], and as I looked around I really didn’t hear a lot about it. I’ve taken it as a personal mission to explore and learn about it.


Q: Can you explain some of the study’s key findings?


A: The study itself was really to pull together my thoughts and experiences over the last ten years. Then, most recently, in looking at accounts that I service I saw some interesting parallels in a lot of the companies … where the aging workforce and their costs were significantly higher relative to the younger population. Financially, it’s a significant issue for employers that are looking to manage and control their workers compensation costs.


I call it the “safety tsunami,” and the tsunami is just happening. If you look at the baby boomer bubble, that group is now just starting to retire, and there’s more to come …


What I’ve found is that very few, if any of the clients that I work with, really have a strategy [for handling this] or, quite frankly, have even thought about the issue.


Q: As much as we hear about the upcoming retirement of the boomer generation on the news, why do you feel more safety professionals aren’t addressing the needs of an aging workforce?


A: The companies that I work with are working very hard to stay compliant with OSHA, they’re working very hard to do the things that we know about, and to have a parallel strategy that addresses this aging workforce component is a challenge for them. I don’t think it’s an indictment on the safety folks at all. That’s why I’m presenting this to my peer group, because I think we know about this intuitively, but we don’t really stop and focus on it.


I was interested to see who in the world has addressed this issue and I found an effort in 2007, done by the BMW Group in an area in Germany called Dingolfing. BMW was concerned that the population of that town was growing older, and they were faced with retirement and a shortage of qualified workers to work in their plant there. So the BMW management team sat down to address this issue head on. They brought in older workers from the plant and talked about what they needed, what they wanted at that point in their life and asked “how can we keep you here,” because their abilities, skills and knowledge were so critical to keeping that plant going. They wanted to do everything they could to facilitate a longer tenure and have those folks stay there.


As I read that article, I related it to the fact that that’s exactly what I was looking at from a safety perspective, rather than a production perspective. They established a team of managers and aging workers and explored how they do things at their workstations. They pulled all of their older workers into a single production station, voluntarily; for example, the muffler installation area. They had guys like me come in and do ergonomic assessments to figure out how they could engineer out some of the heavy material handling, the strain-sprain injuries and the heavy lifting. Then they invested in adjustable tables, automation and mechanical assist devices, and then they also did job rotations and managed repetition. They also initiated strength and stretching exercises, so they have wellness experts out on the floor working with those folks.


They had some very impressive results. They invested about $35,000 USD, and improved overall production by 7 percent—within a year—and general absenteeism dropped from 7 percent in 2008 to 2 percent …


Q: So what are the ways in which you feel safety professionals can reduce the risk of injury to the aging workforce?


A: Here’s my top five as I suggest the strategy:


1. Find them. I don’t know that our U.S. companies, at least the ones that I work with, realize where they have the older workers. Find where your 50-and-older workers are and what they’re doing. As simple as a step as that is, it’s a critical step …


2. Collaboratively with the older workers out on the job, analyze and assess your targeted jobs. It’s like what BMW did: if you have older workers who are doing certain tasks, analyze those tasks from an ergonomic perspective. How can you engineer out the risk? How can you automate the risk? How can you make it easier for them with lift tables, hoists, cranes and those kinds of things?


3. Look for reassignments, where possible. Look to reassign an aging workforce to jobs that are perhaps more aligned with their physical capabilities, of course, with their blessing… Related to that, I think that there’s a place for physical capabilities or function testing. If someone is hurt or reassigned, there are some phenomenal equipment and methodologies that a number of companies use to actually test your physical strength, agility and range of motion, and can assess whether that person can safely perform the job that they’re going to be assigned to. There are some ramifications in terms of employment practices and doing the right thing from a human resources standpoint, but certainly I think that has an application here…


4. Offer creative employment options. A lot of the information that I’ve studied about the workforce that is facing retirement today [shows] they stay in a workforce for a variety of reasons, some of which are medical insurance, some don’t have 401K plans, etc. They can [keep working]; we have better medical care these days and so a lot of coworkers feel able to stay in the workplace past 65. So I suggest offering creative employment options such as alternative work schedules; maybe semi-part-time with health benefits, maybe weekend-only or seasonal work; phased in retirement options …


5. Include a wellness component. From my perspective, Lockton has a wonderful health plan and we have a wellness program that provides us a tremendous incentive. We have a reduction in health plan contributions if we’re “engaged.” I work out every day and I track my workouts and get points for that. Once you’ve accumulated enough points, then you’re what they called “engaged.” I’m a big proponent of wellness programs. Having a wellness program associated with any of your employees [is important], but more important for the sake of the aging workforce…


The key in my mind is keeping the intellectual capital that these wonderful aging folks have about their job, and keeping that in your workplace, because you don’t want to lose that knowledge and experience. At the same time, you’re still counteracting that with the fact that they’re maybe not as strong as they used to be. If they do get injured, it’s going to be a slower healing process. There are other conditions that begin to come into the equation when you have older workers who have been hurt, they could have other issues that have developed over time that compound the healing process.


Q: The study mentions that the age group 40-and-up traditionally has fewer injuries but the highest costs. Why is this?


A: When we’re talking about injuries, we’re talking not about the catastrophic incidents, we’re addressing the sprains of soft tissue, shoulder or back strains, etc. Typically, the older workers know their job very well, so they know how to do it and do it efficiently because they’ve done it for many years, as opposed to a newer employee. Normally, the higher injuries are by those with less than two years of experience. That varies because some workplaces are less volatile in terms of turnover. Companies that have a fair amount of turnover are churning people through, and normally those new employees who get hired are [younger], so less experienced and not as skilled. The older folks know how to do the job better—but when they do get hurt, that’s when it’s going to cost.


… I can tell you the average cost per claim for a 50-plus injured worker compared to a 20-year-old injured worker is 3 to 5 times the average cost per claim. It makes sense because you figure they’ve got other medical issues: they’re going to be healing slower and they’ve got other compounded problems …


For more information, and to read the full study, visit www.lockton.com.


About the Author


Megan Headley is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Va. She can be reached at rmheadley3@gmail.com.