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Workplace Ergonomics for the Aging

Wednesday, November 26, 2008
By Anne Kramer

As the economy forces more people to stay in the workplace past the standard age of retirement, more aging and elderly employees will remain in the workforce. Although many assume that this population can make only limited contributions to the workforce, the contrary is actually the case. However, it is important to remember that, just like any other employees, aging and elderly employees need accommodations to make the workplace ergonomically friendly.

The elderly are particularly susceptible to injuries that affect all workers, including carpal tunnel syndrome and other repetitive stress injuries. Generally, the elderly have about 70% of the strength they did around the age of 25. Therefore, primary concerns for older employees include minimizing gratuitous lifting, reaching, and carrying. Ultimately, addressing these concerns will benefit all employees, since everyone risks injury when doing these activities.

  • Outfitting workstations with carousels and pullout shelves can minimize reaching distance, which should not exceed 18 inches. Reaching farther than 18 inches places stress on the back, shoulders, and neck.

  • Workstations should be arranged so that frequently used items are conveniently, centrally located. Smart layout reduces not only overreaching, but also unnecessary twisting and leaning.

  • Loads weighing more than two pounds should be distributed into smaller containers, to make the weight more manageable. This adaptation protects against back strain.

  • Whenever possible, it is preferable to slide or roll loads weighing more than two pounds, which reduces the risk of back and shoulder injuries.
Meanwhile, certain needs are unique to aging employees. Again, these conditions are simple to accommodate, and allowing for them will improve working conditions for the whole office.

  • Ability to focus the eyes on distant objects deteriorates over time. Thus, visual tasks should be held closer to the eye; document holders next to the monitor minimize this risk. High-resolution monitors and large-print labels also prevent eyestrain.

  • In addition to suffering from age-related hearing loss, elderly people are more vulnerable to noise-induced hearing loss as well. Workstations should be designed to isolate noisy equipment.

  • Decreased manual dexterity often results from osteoarthritis. Tools with ergonomic handles or grip tape ease use and reduce stress to affected joints. Electronic staplers and letter openers eliminate joint stress altogether.

  • Because older workers are more susceptible to cumulative traumas, it is beneficial to vary their job responsibilities and provide opportunities for micro breaks. This will reduce the risk of repetitive stress injuries.
As innovations are continually made in the field of ergonomics, accommodating a wider variety of workers becomes easier and easier. Thus addressing the needs of aging and elderly employees expands their opportunities to remain productive members of the workforce. In the end, all employees will benefit from awareness of elder ergonomic issues.

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