The effect of aging on work capacities is resulting is a global decline of work productivity due to combined absenteeism and "presenteeism" (i.e., being at work but not being productive). Altered physical capacities associated with age-related conditions such as arthritis, impaired balance and coordination, degenerative disc disease, diabetes, heart disease, and cancer are creating special demands and challenges for Safety Professionals today. Ergonomics alone will not effectively address this growing problem.

The impact of an aging workforce is being felt globally with the make-up of the labor force changing significantly in the past 50 years. By the year 2010, an unprecedented 25% of our work population will reach 65 years old or older! There are economic burdens as well. The ratio between the worker and the retired person is changing dramatically. In 1950, there were 7 workers per every retired elderly person. By the year 2030, there will only be 3 workers for every retired elderly person.

More alarmingly, the younger generation of workers that are beginning to replace baby boomers in the work force appears to be less fit than their predecessors with resulting obesity and obesityrelated disorders such as type II diabetes, arthritis and degenerative disc disease becoming pandemic at a much earlier age. All of these trends will be translated into more on-the-job injuries, illness-related absenteeism, disability and reduction in productivity.

It is the opinion of the author that the Safety Professional must be prepared to be on the front line to combat these alarming trends. Modern medicine today in the United States still remains too reactive to be fully effective, too often treating symptoms rather than the causes. The real answers and solutions to the impending health crisis lie in integrated safety programs that incorporate ergonomic, behavioral-based safety, and wellness interventions that can effectively reduce the occurrences of MSDs and improve health of employees.

Preventing Musculoskeletal Disorders

Incidences of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are on an increase as the working population ages and comprise one of the largest problems in industry today. Spinal disorders, particularly those of the lower back and neck, are very prevalent today and can lead to permanent disability and chronic pain in an aging work force. After low back and neck injuries, shoulder injuries rank third in prevalence. However, the good news is that almost all MSDs are preventable.

The cause of the vast majority of MSDs today is related to how we work (ergonomics) and how we live (lifestyle). The majority of MSDs can be directly related to poor ergonomic practices involving awkward, stressful postures, improper material handling, and highly repetitive motions. Poor lifestyle habits that lead to obesity and declining physical fitness with loss of flexibility and muscle support of the spine and extremities also contributes significantly to these problems. By understanding and applying good ergonomic practices, modifying poor work and lifestyle behaviors and improving physical fitness (lifestyle), the vast majority of MSDs can be prevented.

Risk Factors for MSDs:

A. Work-Related:

  • Poor Posture

  • Excessive Force

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