America's workforce is changing. If older is better, then the workforce is definitely better. If older is wiser, it is wiser. So much so that the number of fatal and nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses has declined. Even though Americans are living longer, they are living healthier lives (NIOSH). Older Americans are becoming the norm in the workplace.
According to Goldberg "The median age in America has gone from 16 in 1790 to 21 in 1890, 22 in 1990 and projected to be 39 in 2040" (11). Written in 2000, the numbers now reflect an older median age for the United States population. The following chart from the Monthly Labor Review as of 2004 indicates the median age for the population in general as well as the labor force for 1992, 2002, and 2012.
Table:Median Age (available in full paper).
Does it cost more to keep the older worker? Can the older worker be as productive? Consider the following myth. "Most middle-aged and older adults are poor employment risks. Compared to young adults, they do inferior work, have poorer attitudes because they are more set in their ways ('you can't teach an old dog new tricks'), and more often become injured or ill" (Schultz and Salthouse 250). A key role for the safety professional in risk management includes risk assessment and hazard identification. The critical contribution in decreasing injuries among older workers is significant for the amount of savings that can occur in lost workdays. The older worker has approximately half as many injuries as younger workers, but when they do get injured, it takes them almost twice as long to recover.
Our society cannot continue to run business as usual. Businesses that change their perceptions of older workers, including their value and contribution to the workplace, will be in front of the curve to take advantage of the changing demographics. Understanding the older worker, changing the work environment to accommodate them, and changing the way we train adults will create a healthier, safer, and more productive workforce for the largest working population in America.
Safety trainers must improve their delivery methods to incorporate adult learning theory. Older workers require technology to improve physical characteristics of the workplace including vision, hearing, and other related ergonomic issues. Cognitive issues related to adult learning are also important considerations in improving learner retention in training sessions. This paper reviews the cognitive, physiological, and adult learning needs of the older worker and offers suggestions to improve safety training. Increasing the effectiveness of safety training improves the health and safety of the workforce, decreases injuries and has a positive financial impact.