Don't Lose Sight of the Older Work Force: A Growing Population of Older Workers Has Prompted Companies to Consider Implementing Accommodations That Help Address One of the Common Signs of Aging: Failing Vision

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Just like a fine bottle of Bordeaux, people only get better with age, right?

While it often is true that age brings wisdom, experience and maturity, age also brings many challenges that concern the employers of workers who are creeping toward retirement age.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), baby boomers--people born between 1946 and 1964--make up about one-third of the U.S. work force, the highest number of workers in this age group since 1970. And they aren't planning to retire to Florida anytime soon: AARP reported that 79 percent of baby boomers don't plan to stop working at age 65.

Older adults continue to work beyond retirement age for various reasons, and health and safety professionals are examining some of the challenges facing this at-risk worker population.

Vision problems are one of the first challenges many aging workers face --usually beginning in their 40's. Pupils may react more slowly to changes in light, and the eye becomes more sensitive to glare and less adaptable in the dark. Increased nearsightedness might make it more difficult to focus and read smaller print, depth perception may decrease and visual field and peripheral vision may become more limited. Finally, distinguishing between pastel colors, especially blues and greens, may become more difficult.

Issues with visual acuity can pose safety risks for older workers as well as their colleagues. However, an increasing number of companies today are more open to retaining and hiring older workers. Employers realize that older workers, while presenting some physical challenges, offer knowledge and skills that take years for fresh, young employees to learn. And some employers are going the extra mile in making accommodations for older workers so they can continue to work in a safe manner.

Benefits of Having an Older Work Force

Brackenridge, Pa.-based ATI Allegheny Ludlam Stainless Steel Corp., which makes stainless steel and other metallurgical products, recognizes the value of older employees. Mike Swann, ATI's repair technician and member of the company's corporate safety committee, says that at ATI's Clarence Center, N.Y., facility, two-thirds of the workers there are within 10 years of retirement. According to Swann, ATI places a high value on its older work force because as the company creates new products, older and more experienced workers give the company an edge over its competitors by providing input on what will or won't work.

In addition, many older workers have valuable experience dealing with hazards unique to workplaces such as ATI--extremely hot metal, heavy pieces of equipment and even heavier products (ATI's smallest product weighs 8,000 pounds). Older workers mentor new employees on how to handle the materials properly and safely.

"Their experience is so invaluable," Swann said. "In this industry, it is very easy for people to get careless, have things go wrong and people get hurt. Our older workers can teach our younger ones how to properly handle the stuff so they can keep themselves safe and keep the equipment operating efficiently."

For this reason, ATI caters to the needs of older workers' lagging eyesight. Swann says ATI provides prescription safety glasses to employees. Some workers are required to wear full-face respirators, and those who wear bifocals are given respirators with prescription lens inserts.

"The company really goes the extra mile to make sure that we stay safe, not just from the normal job hazards, but also from the hazards of some folks not being able to see properly," Swann says.

In addition, ATI has incorporated bright colors and large images when sending in-house work emails and uses larger fonts in manuals and signs.

"The company has made it easier on these guys so they don't have to strain their eyes as much," Swann says.

Avoiding the Issue

Workers who experience symptoms of vision degradation mght not always admit it. …