Ergonomic guidelines have always been important. However, they are even more critical now because of the changing demographics of the work force. For instance, today’s assembly line workers are often older and more diverse than in the past.

A new report released by the Economic Policy Institute (EPI, Washington, DC) claims that older Americans' labor force participation has reached a 40-year high. In fact, a rising number of workers over 55 are putting off retirement. "The obstacles older workers face on the way to retirement are mounting, and unfortunately, are not going to be solved anytime soon," warns Emily Garr, an EPI researcher and author of the report.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (Washington, DC), 17 percent of the U.S. work force will be 55 or older by 2010. And, approximately 10,000 Americans will turn 65 every day by 2012. The higher share of older workers in the labor force is partly due to rising health care costs, shrinking home values, loss of 401(k) accounts and eroded savings, which are combining to make retirement unaffordable for many individuals.

“Implementing ergonomic guidelines are especially important given today’s economic situation and the aging work force,” says Julia Greenwald, senior ergonomist at the Ergonomics Center of North Carolina (Raleigh, NC), which is housed in the Edward P. Fitts Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at North Carolina State University. “As companies struggle in today’s market, following ergonomic guidelines proactively is key to keeping injury costs low once products and processes are placed into production.

“Following ergonomic principles can also lead to cost savings from a productivity and quality perspective, as well,” Greenwald points out. “In addition, many [people] are choosing to stay in the workforce beyond the age of 65, for one reason or another. One way to account for the aging work force is to follow ergonomic guidelines in the design process. By designing for the 5th percentile female strength, the majority of the aging workforce is also accommodated.”

Ergonomics is the design of work to fit the worker or matching demands of the job to capabilities and limitations of the worker. “Limitations include what happens as we age, such as decreases in physical strength, vision, hearing and reaction times,” explains Wayne Maynard, director of ergonomics at the Liberty Mutual Research Institute for Safety (Hopkinton, MA).

“What people forget many times is that ergonomic design for safety means we must design for as many workers as possible and this includes older workers,” adds Maynard. “Guidelines on manual material handling consider strengths of older workers, as do guidelines on controls and display design. Guidelines on lighting also consider vision requirements [for older people].

“Regarding diversity, guidelines on recommended workstation and equipment work heights need to consider the actual workforce,” says Maynard. “For example, the semiconductor industry and its SEMI S8 ergonomic guideline use Asian anthropometric data for smaller or 5th percentile dimensions used for reaching tasks.”