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Changes in the nature of work, where work is conducted, the demographics of the workforce, and in the ways employment is arranged pose new challenges for the practice of occupational health and safety. While employment in the manufacturing and energy sectors has declined, employment in the services and health care, and social assistance sectors has increased. New technological advancements like nanotechnology, automation, sensor technology, machine learning, data analytics, and robotics are changing the nature of work.

Changes in the age, gender, and racial/ethnic composition of the workforce are also occurring. Up to five generations are now working alongside each other in the workplace—traditionalists, baby boomers, Gen X, Gen Y (“millennials”), and Gen Z. Each generation has different attitudes about the role of work in their lives, different ways of communicating, and different perspectives on how workers should be managed.

Work arrangements are also changing. The “standard” employer–employee relationship, which provided a “safety net” of federal and state law protections (including safety and health protections) for those workers deemed by law to be “employees,” now exists alongside alternative work arrangements that lack the same labor law protections. These alternative arrangements include co-employment, or “temporary” worker arrangements, independent contractor, or “entrepreneurial” arrangements, and newer arrangements often called “gig” or “platform” arrangements, which are intermediated by an online digital platform rather than by a traditional employer.


Age Composition

The share of the US population aged 55 or older is rising rapidly. In 2000, the 55-year-and-older cohort made up 13% of the workforce. By 2020, this group had increased to 20% of the workforce, and by 2050, older workers will still constitute 19% of the workforce. However, millennials (those born between 1981 and 1997) have caught up with the baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964). In April of 2016, population estimates from the U.S. Census Bureau showed that millennials were estimated to number 75.4 million individuals, surpassing the 74.9 million baby boomers.

Age-related changes in the workforce require practitioners to engage in a type of demographic risk management. Older workers bring value to the firm because of their experience, but older workers have more chronic medical conditions that may affect their work performance. The most common chronic medical conditions seen in older workers, such as hypertension, arthritis, and respiratory and cardiovascular disease, may lead to more absences and a diminished physical tolerance. Physically demanding tasks may pose both a productivity risk and a safety risk for the firm with an aging workforce. Occupational safety and health practitioners need to be wary of emphasizing the frailties and limitations associated with age without evaluation of each worker on an individual level. Mature workers can often function at a similar physical and cognitive level than younger workers. In addition, the organization may benefit from a mature worker’s experience with ...

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