Older Workers at Risk Behind the Wheel
Older workers have twice the risk of dying in a work-related motor vehicle crash than younger workers, according to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. One reason may be that older people are more likely to be injured in a crash and more likely to die if they are injured, the government speculates.
Age-related physical and mental changes can affect driving ability among older workers. Employers need to be aware of the changes and work with their employees to develop safety and health programs that consider older drivers’ needs.
“Although illnesses and other health problems can interfere with driving ability, the effect of many conditions on driving can be reduced or resolved with treatment,” according to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health. “The safety of older drivers in the workplace is a shared responsibility of employers and their employees. Forward-thinking safety programs, reasonable accommodations, and open lines of communication between employers and workers can help protect valued older employees from death or disability due to roadway crashes.”
By 2020, 25 percent of the workforce will be at least 55 years of age, according to NIOSH. The agency has created materials, including a new fact sheet to help employers keep their older drivers safe.
The Effects of Aging
As the body changes, many factors can affect driving ability. Employers should be aware of the changes and develop strategies to ensure their older drivers stay safe.
The National Institute for Occupational Health and Safety cites the following changes:
Eyes. Diminished eyesight and the need for more light can affect driving ability in some people. Older workers affected may find it especially difficult to drive at dawn, dusk, and at night. Cataracts and macular degeneration may make it harder to read signs and see colors.
Diseases. Diabetes can make blood sugar levels too high or low, which can lead to drowsiness, dizziness, confusion, loss of consciousness, or seizures. Arthritis may cause stiff joints, limiting movement of shoulders, hands, head, and neck and making it difficult to grasp the steering wheel or apply brake and gas pedals. And sleep apnea can increase the risk of drowsy driving. Medications can interfere with sleep quality, also increasing the risk for drowsiness.
Motor skills. As they decline with age, it can become more difficult to have the strength to step on the brake or gas pedal. A decrease in flexibility makes it harder to see all angles of the car. A lack of coordination can make it more difficult for the upper and lower body to work together while simultaneously braking and turning.
Mental abilities. Attention span, memory, judgment, and the ability to make decisions and react quickly may be affected. Older drivers may feel overwhelmed by signs, signals, pedestrians, and vehicles around them.
“Roadway crashes are the leading cause of occupational fatalities for older workers in the U.S.,” according to NIOSH. “Motor vehicle crashes account for 32 percent of all work-related deaths among workers age 55 or older.”
Nearly 3,200 workers over 55 were killed in motor vehicle crashes on public highways between 1992 and 2002. Death rates for work-related roadway accidents increase steadily beginning around age 55.
“A 61-year-old motor coach driver and six passengers were killed when a bus left the roadway around 4 a.m. and entered an emergency parking area striking a parked tractor-trailer and pushing it into a second tractor-trailer,” NIOSH recounted. “An off-duty police officer reported seeing the bus drift within its travel lane a few minutes before the crash. Investigators concluded that fatigue due to an irregular work-rest schedule and a sedating antihistamine were major contributors to the crash.”
The accident on the Pennsylvania Turnpike in June 1998 points up some of the issues that can arise with older drivers. Reduced vision, slower reaction times, declines in cognitive functioning, and chronic health conditions can affect a person’s driving ability (see box).
Older workers are particularly more likely than other drivers to have accidents at intersections, especially when turning left, and when they are merging or changing lanes on a highway. Among the suggestions to prevent older workers from having accidents is to make sure they use caution at intersections, especially when turning left, and to avoid cutting between approaching vehicles when they do.
Employers are advised to use prevention strategies to protect their older drivers while workers should learn to maintain their driving ability and safe driving habits as they age. A key member of management should be responsible for setting and enforcing a comprehensive driver safety policy, NIOSH suggests.
Trained health professionals can assess driving ability. Any restrictions on driving should be based on that assessment rather than on a person’s general health status or an “arbitrary” age limit, NIOSH advises.
Refresher driver training should be offered throughout the organization with older workers encouraged to attend. Also, employers should keep complete and accurate records of workers’ driving performances.
Overall health and safety can also reduce the likelihood of older workers having motor vehicle crashes. Employers can promote health and safety of all their workers through programs that target exercise, diet, and smoking cessation.
Among specific suggestions are:
- Consider whether the work can be done without driving, or set work schedules that allow workers to obey speed limits and follow applicable rules such as hours-of-service regulations.
- Prevent distracted driving by banning texting and hand-held phone use while driving.
- Allow workers to take naps of less than 30 minutes or stop in a safe location if they are tired.
Prevent impaired driving by making sure workers understand the possible effects of prescription and over-the-counter medications on their driving. Also, set policies that prohibit driving while the person is under the influence of prescription or over-the-counter medications as well as alcohol and illegal drugs.