08/02/2017 05:15 EDT | Updated 08/02/2017 05:20 EDT

Companies taking steps to keep older workers safe on the job

When managers at Bon Secours Virginia Health System started analyzing workers' compensation cases, they noticed a bad combination: Older nurses were having problems from lifting heavy and sicker patients.

"We saw an increase in back injuries and older workers were more likely to suffer from those injuries," said Jim Godwin, vice-president of human resources. "Not only that, but we thought if we can keep workers from sustaining (back) injuries when they are younger, they can continue working longer."

The company put into place a new protocol for moving patients. Nurses can now call in a "patient mobility team" to help.

Jacquelyn James, co-director of the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, said there's a recognition among employers such as Richmond-based Bon Secours Virginia Health System that the workforce is aging.

"That's what's driving the change right now," she said. "Changes are needed. These workers are staying in their jobs."

The U.S. government estimates that by 2024, older workers will account for a quarter of the labour market.

The natural process of aging could lead to physical problems including gradually worsening vision and hearing impairment, reduced response time and balance and other issues, according to gerontologists. That "could potentially make a workplace injury into a much more serious injury or a potentially fatal injury," said Ken Scott, an epidemiologist with the Denver Public Health Department.

In 2015, about 35 per cent of the fatal workplace accidents involved a worker 55 and older.

So companies such as Bon Secours Richmond Health System, a faith-based non-profit health care system that manages several hospitals, are taking steps to make their workplace safer for older workers. About one-quarter of Bon Secours' 13,000 workers are 50 or older, Godwin said.

"There is a chronic shortage of health care professionals and that's been true for the last 30 years since I've been working," he said. "We had to get innovative with ways to keep our positions filled."

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said there are a variety of accommodations that employers can make to create a safer and more conducive work environment for older employees. Among its recommendations:

—Providing flexibility on the job. NIOSH says this includes schedules, location and tasks, among other things.

—Creating a work environment that lets people move rather than stay sedentary all day. That can include providing sit/stand work stations or onsite physical activity.

—Managing noise and other physical hazards, such as causes of slipping and tripping.

—Ensuring that the work environment is ergonomically friendly. That could include workstations, seating, flooring and lighting.

—Using teams and promoting teamwork to solve problems.

—Promoting healthy lifestyles and striving to "accommodate medical self-care in the workplace and time away for health visits."

"Our emphasis is productive aging," said James Grosch, co-director of NIOSH's National Center for Productive Aging and Work.


EDITOR'S NOTE — Maria Ines Zamudio is studying aging and workforce issues as part of a 10-month fellowship at The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, which joins NORC's independent research and AP journalism. The fellowship is funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.