The Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) was created in the United States to help ensure older employees (age 40 or older) are not discriminated against in the workplace. In regard to the Fit-for-Duty (FFD) examination, the test design must avoid “unfair” disparate discrimination against older workers. Since body strength and flexibility declines with age a higher failure rate of older workers may occur in some jobs that have high physical demands (e.g., firefighter). For this reason, federal law requires that employers perform validation studies that substantiate that FFD tests assess job-specific, essential physical demands of the jobs.
Focus on Baby Boomers
The increased focus on the growing graying workforce today has been primarily due to the baby boomers coming to age and people working longer before retiring. As a result, the workforce has become submerged by a “silver tsunami” with over 20% of U.S. workers age 60 years or older. A related phenomenon associated with the impact of aging processes on physical abilities is the trend of the earlier onset of “old person” diseases on younger workers. Diseases such as arthritis and diabetes can obviously impact the abilities of a person to perform the essential functions of a job safely.
Although there are many benefits associated with employing a highly experienced and mature older employee, there are physiological effects from aging that can potentially adversely impact abilities to perform physically demanding jobs and pass a FFD examination. Statistics indicate that the leading cause of injuries among the older workforce are slips, trips, and falls. Fatalities related to falls and driving accidents are much higher among older workers as well.
Aging Results in Musculoskeletal Changes
Age-related musculoskeletal changes independent of comorbidities and exercise interventions, include reduction in strength and flexibility and neurological changes that result in impaired balance, reaction times, coordination, vision, and hearing. The actual timing and degree in which these age-related effects can affect work performance will vary considerably among people as the onset and severity of these changes are influenced by personal factors that include genetic variations, fitness level, harmful lifestyle habits (e.g., smoking and drug use), and the presence of comorbidities such as obesity and diabetes.
Age Related Changes that Potentially Affect Work Capacities
- Reduced strength
- Reduced flexibility
- Reduced endurance
- Reduced cardiopulmonary capacities (VO2 max)
- Impaired balance and coordination
- Reduced reaction time
- Impaired vision
- Decreased scotopic vision (reduced ability to see in dim light)
- Delayed glare recovery time
- Impaired depth perception
- Impaired hearing – high frequency loss
Reduced strength and flexibility are relatively consistent changes as one ages, particularly after age 60. Complicating the compromised functional capacities caused by declining strength and flexibility are comorbidities involving obesity and diseases like diabetes. Because of these known age-related changes, employers should make it a goal to reduce physical exertions for each job when possible (e.g. add mechanical assistive devices for material handling). Impact of aging on vision, hearing, and balance and improve the work environment (e.g. improve lighting and remove trip hazards) to help facilitate the older employee’s abilities to work safely. Ergonomics directed at reducing force, awkward postures, repetition and other risk factors is not only a smart process for reducing injuries, but it also serves the very important function of reducing job demands to the essential requirements to be used in FFD testing.
Other demographic changes affecting the worker population pool creating a greater dependency on retaining older workers is the disturbing socioeconomic trend for the past several decades of a progressive reduction of prime-age male workers (ages 25 to 54) entering the workforce1. Although the unemployment rate in the United States at the time of this publication is roughly half that existed at the end of the Great Recession, Bookings Institution reported that about 7 million (12%) of prime working-age men in the U.S. are neither working nor looking for a job. This population of unemployed prime-age male workers are described as typically low-income men who have either dropped out of high school or have not received education beyond a high school diploma. Unfortunately, the situation is not made better by the observation that instead of taking action to improve employment skills to get a job, the average male in this group spends about 75% of his time (ranging from 12 to 30 hours per week) playing video games. As a consequence, employers feel more pressure to seek out and hire older workers in order to try to make up this growing deficit of prime age male workers.
With all these factors in place related to the growing need to hire older workers, it is an essential component of the safety process to properly match the employee’s physical capacities to the essential job demands. As with avoiding unfair disparate discrimination of women in the FFD testing process, it is critical to conduct a proper physical demands validation (PDV) and reasonably reduce or eliminate all ergonomic risk factors. Once the ergonomic process is carefully completed, then a properly designed FFD test can be created for each job that will be legally compliant and avoid an unfair disparate hiring practice2.
1 Steinmetz, K. Number of Jobless Young Men Surges: You Won’t Believe What They’re Doing with Their Time. www.moneytalksnews.com, July 27, 2016.
2 Frangos, S., Bardarson, T., Bunch, R., The Design and Value of a Medical Fitness-for-Duty Program. This paper was prepared for presentation at the 2008 SPE International Conference on Health, Safety, and Environment in Oil and Gas Exploration and Production held in Nice, France, 15–17, April 2008.