How to prepare for the aging workforce

Making jobs physically easier helps not only older workers, but everyone

The FABRICATOR September 2014
August 27, 2014
By: Brian Roberts

The aging workforce is a complex, multifaceted issue, but it has one immutable fact: There will be more older people working than ever before. Older workers can be incredibly valuable to a manufacturer. They have the experience and skill that this industry craves. But you can’t escape biology. As we get older, the body changes, and the workplace needs to account for these changes. The good news is that these changes not only help older workers, but every employee at the company.

Editor’s Note: This article is based on “Human Factors: The Aging Workforce,” a webcast presented by Dallas-based Brian Roberts, national director, workers’ compensation and ergonomics, at insurance provider CNA, 214-220-1300. For more information, visit To view the webcast, visit Unless otherwise noted, figures in this article are from CNA Ergonomic Guidelines, as well as other company publications and research. This includes CNA’s Motion is Money program.

Several years ago I visited a custom fabricator with a forming department that seemed to be busy. As it turned out, the overall plant was slow, so the forming department didn’t seem to be causing a bottleneck. Then I saw two older presses nearby. Why weren’t these machines being used? The reason was that the person who really knew how to run those machines retired six weeks before.

Several weeks later I learned that, as business picked back up, the forming department became overwhelmed, and managers had to call back the recent retiree to ask him to come back to work. He was happy in retirement, and he didn’t need to work. But finally managers offered him a very healthy pay and benefits package, which drew him back to the shop floor.

So much of the conversation today in metal fabrication and manufacturing in general focuses on finding a new generation of skilled workers. What’s sometimes overlooked is how important older workers really are. Companies do their best to look appealing to the youth, but the reality is that a lot of manufacturing knowledge today is inside the heads of technicians getting ready to leave the workforce.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, within the next 15 years, 80 percent of the workforce growth will come from those more than 50 years old, and by next year, 20 percent of the total U.S. workforce will be 55 or older.

It’s a complex, multifaceted issue, and part of it involves the traditional conversations manufacturing managers have. To mitigate the brain-drain, workplaces need mentoring programs, training regimens, documentation, and healthy communication between the veterans and rookies. Few new workers today benefit from years-long apprenticeship programs, where the new employee shadows the experienced.

Aging is now a boardroom-level issue. It’s especially acute in Europe and Japan right now, and by 2025 it will become a fact of life for most business managers throughout North America, China, Australia, and much of the industrialized world. That’s when, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, more than a fifth of the global population will be 60 or older. By 2030—less than 16 years away—all of the country’s 78 million baby boomers will have reached retirement age, and the projected worker shortfall will be 35 million. It’s just a projected shortfall, though, and just because boomers reach retirement age doesn’t mean they will retire. Be it for personal enjoyment or financial reasons, more today are working longer.

This is neither good nor bad; it’s just reality, and it represents a fundamental shift in the employment landscape. As you begin to look at your company culture and values, you need to ask, “Can we continue to do business like we’ve done business for the past 40 years?” Economic trends may shift over decades, but human biology doesn’t. We all age. Our bodies change, and this includes our lifting ability, our reaction times, our respiratory and cardiovascular system, our hearing, our vision, and on and on.

Manufacturing is a physical job in which people need to lift and move products from one process to another. They may need to lift a panel during bending, or contort themselves to weld out-of-position.

If any company, be it a manufacturer or otherwise, does not adapt its workplace to accommodate the aging workforce, the company is dramatically reducing its available talent pool, because it’s overlooking the fastest-growing segment of the American workforce. In addition, older workers have the experience and technical knowledge that manufacturers crave.

You can tackle this problem in various ways. The good news is that by taking the older worker into account, a company makes a job easier and more efficient for everyone. This in turn can attract more skilled workers of all ages, a feat that, when you think about it, is the very essence of a successful manufacturer.

How Employees Move

Review the design of the job task, tools, equipment, and other environmental factors. You won’t be able to make changes magically overnight, but you can make them incrementally over time, and the first step is to start asking questions and observing.

Observing is especially important. Employees often won’t volunteer the fact that they can’t lift a workpiece like they used to, or that they can’t walk as fast as they once did. So beyond asking questions and talking, observe people in action. What kind of lifting, pushing, pulling, gripping, reading, and other activities do employees perform? Observing and identifying the physical effects of aging can ensure the entire operation, including both the shop floor and front office, takes the physiology of all employees into account.

Research literature shows that the strength of older workers decreases. Between age 50 and 60 we lose 25 percent of our strength. But in plant settings, employees still need to lift, lower, push, pull, and carry material.

To make jobs easier, you can change the type of tools they use to ones that are easier to handle and easier to attain a good grip. And don’t forget walking. It’s amazing how much people walk in a plant environment. The same efforts to reduce walking for continuous improvement—like moving subsequent work centers or material inventory closer to the point of use—also can help make people’s jobs easier and safer. And what type of surface are people walking on all day? Concrete is hard and unforgiving, and you may find that a small investment in antifatigue mats near work centers, even shoe inserts or straps to reduce leg fatigue, will make employees happier and more productive.

By the time a 30-year-old who can easily walk over a small bump on the plant floor reaches 60, his gait changes, and that little bump becomes a tripping hazard. Smooth surfaces are important for all workers; even the 30-year-old has a chance of tripping over the smallest bump. The best practice is to work to eliminate hazards altogether for all workers.

How much time do workers spend pushing and pulling objects? As companies continuously improve, they often reduce batch sizes. Instead of using fork trucks to move massive batches from the cutting to forming department, a time-consuming endeavor, workers now may push or pull carts holding at most dozens of parts. The weight of the load can be a problem if the batch size is too large, but no matter how light the load, an employee still needs to push or pull that cart.

The cart is one of the simplest tools, but it’s also one of the most vital, and just because it’s simple doesn’t mean it’s maintenance-free. As with preventive maintenance on any other machine, cart maintenance records are valuable. When was the last time the cart was lubricated and otherwise maintained? Simple PM can do wonders for worker productivity.

Also, how large are the cart’s wheels? For easy use, carts should have wheel diameters no less than 6 in. The smaller the wheel, the more force it takes to move it. Also, the wheels should have roller bearings and other elements to make it easy to push or pull. You may not be able to upgrade or buy new carts for every operation in the plant in the near term, but over the long term—say, over the next four years—you may be able to take a systematic approach every quarter to gradually improve your carts for ease of use.

Of course it’s difficult for a manufacturer to eliminate fork trucks entirely, and using these brings up its own factors when considering the coordination of head, neck, and upper and lower limb movements. Ideally, acceptable hand-wheel turning force should be less than 35 lbs., a specification that modern fork trucks with power steering meet easily. But this isn’t the only consideration. Some vehicles do not have shocks, and some don’t have what’s known as “floating” seat and cab designs that reduce shock and vibration. Also, employees operate fork trucks backward half of the time, which is very fatiguing even though they’re seated. Continual twisting in the seat can be tiring.

Like continuous improvement, finding ways to make a job physically easier should never stop, but as a starting-point benchmark, a job at the very least should never require the average maximum strength of older workers.

As an example, people between 51 and 60 have on average 13 percent less torque capability than younger workers, and those between 61 and 70 have a 32 percent reduction. When exactly that reduction in strength occurs depends on the individual, but again, you can’t escape biology. Sooner or later, strength reduction will occur. So, ideally, power tools and other rotating equipment requiring torque from an operator should account for this. Slip gears and other mechanical elements to reduce needed force can be very valuable.

Consider the following guidelines: Inline power tools shouldn’t require more than 2.36 lbs. of force; a pistol grip power tool should never require more than 5.02 lbs.; and a right-angle power tool shouldn’t require more than 37 lbs. of force. The same pattern applies to pinch-grip and thumb forces. Males between 40 and 49 can exert on average 24.2 lbs. of pinch-grip force, while males between 50 and 69 exert 22.7 lbs. On average, people can comfortably pull a trigger on a tool using one thumb with 5.3 lbs. of force. But as people age, the thumb force decreases—by 8 percent between the ages of 51 and 60, and by 34 percent between 61 and 70. (Note that these figures are guidelines, not absolutes, and ideal levels of force depend on the individual and situation.)

All of this doesn’t take into account physical problems like arthritis, which limit strength even more. Certain modern power tools have become extremely comfortable, but you still need to grip them and pull a trigger. So you need to understand what kind of tools they’re using, how much force these tools require, and how they are using them.

Regarding lifting, it’s not just about a maximum weight a person can lift. It’s also about where the lift starts and ends, and how close that lifting action is to the body. You may be lifting just 10 lbs., but if you need to reach to the floor and extend your arms fully to grab the material and lift it straight up, with the arms remaining fully extended, that 10 lbs. can equate to more than 1,000 lbs. of force on the lower back muscles.

This is where reach considerations come into play, and it’s a fatigue as well as an efficiency and quality problem. For any worker, reach and extension of the arm should not exceed 22 in., especially with tools in the hand. Any more than that can put excessive stress on the employee, and it will also take longer to finish the task. If the task requires precision work, the reach really shouldn’t exceed 11 in. Frequency plays a huge role here. How many times during a shift must the employee reach? If he or she reaches more than once every 2 minutes, fatigue can set in even faster, even for jobs requiring only a close reach. (Again, these are guidelines and are application-dependent.)

Illumination and Hearing

A lot of talk about lighting centers around those who look at computer screens all day, especially those in the front office. Most think more light is needed. In fact, it’s the opposite. If you’re on a computer more than four hours a day, you need only about 50 foot-candles, depending on the situation, which isn’t incredibly bright. If an engineer needs to look at a print closely, he should use a desk lamp that shines about 100 foot-candles—bright, but not an immense amount.

When considering lighting on the shop floor, first tackle the low-hanging fruit: When was the last time anyone cleaned the overhead lighting fixtures in your plant? It’s amazing how much a quick cleaning every six months will affect luminance. If it’s difficult to see, it’s difficult to do your job, and that applies to any age group.

Glare can cause efficiency problems too. On a recent visit to one plant, I talked to a gentleman running a CNC machine and saw him load parts and work the control. I asked his supervisor how long it should take him to load, and he answered about 4 minutes. In reality, the man was taking 8 minutes. Why? The contrast and font size on the monitor weren’t correct, and it was difficult for him to see. So he moved slowly to ensure he didn’t make a costly mistake. By simply changing out the monitor (it was an old screen), removing unnecessary icons and other clutter from the screen, and changing the font size, the operator was able to reduce the changeover time by half.

Hearing degrades over time as well, and not just because of exposure to excessive noise. Age-related hearing loss (presbycusis) is thought to begin at about age 35. Over time people show poor auditory discrimination performance, unable to distinguish one sound from another (and no one really knows quite why this occurs). So when designing control, alarm, and instruction systems that have auditory demands, try complementing these with a visual cue, such as a flashing light.

Asking the Right Questions

Considering all this, you now can move forward and start asking the right questions. What is the age range of your entire workforce, and by job type? Is there a job or department where more than 10 percent of the employees are over 50? What type of injuries are occurring, who is being injured, and how old are they? What are the risk factors causing the injuries? What are the ergonomic problems? And how will all this change over the next five to 10 years? Does your transitional or return-to-work (RTW) process following an injury take aging into consideration? It takes older workers longer to heal.

Finally, how are you going to keep that 60-year-old employee working injury-free until that employee decides to retire?

About the Little Things

When you talk about ergonomics to those outside manufacturing, many think that automation is the answer. If a job is too difficult on the body, the aging worker’s included, manufacturers now just install a robot to do the job and, boom, problem solved.

Those in manufacturing know it’s not as simple as that. In some cases, automation is the best route, be it a robotic bending cell that handles heavy parts or a robotic welder that can access joints that would be awkward for a person to reach. But automation is, of course, expensive, and it can be difficult to adapt to the high-product-mix environments that make up the majority of U.S. manufacturing.

Automation can be one answer of many. In fact, the little things—problems that you can tackle with only small investments—add up to make a big difference. Consider ergonomics. The average manufacturing worker bends down about 35,000 times per year, and it takes about 3 seconds to bend. Multiply the number of bends by the time it takes by the number of employees, times their annual wage, and you end up with a very big number. That’s how much you’re paying just to have someone bend over to pick something up or otherwise accomplish a task.

It goes beyond the hard numbers. Say you have a knowledgeable, older employee who has been bending over to pick up material for 25 years. That person may be your go-to technician for some of your most challenging jobs, but his back is killing him. All this can affect a business immensely in various ways.

You will never eliminate all bending, but what if you could eliminate 10 percent of it, perhaps by using an adjustable scissor lift table, or even a motorized hoist or other simple form of mechanization? That small investment would translate into huge savings, not to mention a healthier, happier workforce.

CNA is a registered trademark of CNA Financial Corporation. Logo copyright © 2011 CNA. All rights reserved.

Brian Roberts

Vice President
Advanced Kiffer Systems Inc.
15666 Snow Road
Cleveland, OH 44142
Phone: 216-267-8181

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The FABRICATOR is North America's leading magazine for the metal forming and fabricating industry. The magazine delivers the news, technical articles, and case histories that enable fabricators to do their jobs more efficiently. The FABRICATOR has served the industry since 1971.

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