Skip to main content


Ergonomics june-july 2024

Ergonomics for a Multigenerational Workforce

Gray wave. Silver tsunami. Population aging.

We’ve all heard the names and metaphors, and experts have talked about the phenomenon for years. In 2024, it’s truly upon us: The population, both in the United States and abroad, is getting older, with major implications for the workforce and how employers manage it.

But these descriptors don’t capture the full reality of the situation. Today’s workforce, which is older on average than in previous decades, is also more diverse than ever, including members of as many as five generations born across nearly a century. So, while researchers have anticipated the aging phenomenon for many years, employers – and their safety leaders in particular – now must deal with the broader issue of a truly multigenerational workforce, one with widely disparate health traits, risk factors and work styles.

This is a challenge that can spur frustration among safety professionals and the employees they help to protect; however, it can also be an opportunity for employers to develop holistic safety programs, leading to a more comprehensive and cohesive strategy with more positive outcomes across the age spectrum.

Identifying Shared Safety Risks
The wide generational distribution of today’s workers means their safety needs are highly varied, but there are risk factors that remain relevant to all workers regardless of age. Assessed together, these can serve as a useful foundation for an adaptable safety strategy that scales across the entire age range of the workforce. These are issues that safety professionals can begin to tackle on their way to addressing more specific challenges for both older and younger workers.

In terms of physical ailments, chronic pain and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are two that affect workers regardless of age.

Chronic Pain
As of 2021, research indicates that roughly 20% of American adults suffer from some form of chronic pain, equating to more than 50 million individuals. Among those, some 17 million experience high-impact chronic pain, which substantially affects their ability to perform basic tasks and participate in daily life. Aside from the well-understood effects pain has on worker performance (e.g., increased risk of musculoskeletal injury, diminished productivity, decreased engagement), it is also linked to risk factors such as depression and substance abuse (see Other risks – like fatigue – snowball from chronic pain and its related effects.

Musculoskeletal Disorders
MSDs remain one of the most common work-related injury types in every field. The National Safety Council reported that two categories – overexertion/body reaction and slips/trips/falls – accounted for nearly 1 million total annual injuries, more than half of which required at least one day away from work (see While workers ages 45 and above are more likely to experience MSDs, all age groups are affected. Overexertion injuries alone cost employers around $13 billion per year, with the total economic burden of MSDs at work falling somewhere between $45 and $54 billion annually (see

Bridging the Generational Divide
Chronic pain and MSDs affect workers of all ages, but there are several factors that differentiate the five generations that exist in today’s workforce. Understanding these is key to developing effective holistic safety strategies.

The risks that come with age are fairly well-researched. As workers grow older, they are more prone to slips and falls, soft-tissue injuries and work-related pain that can impact their productivity. Workers of the Silent and Baby Boomer generations are increasingly facing joint issues, arthritis, back pain and chronic health problems that may keep them out of work for days at a time. Hearing and vision loss can also affect the ability to perform certain tasks.

Meanwhile, younger workers bring their own set of risk factors, many stemming from the social and technological landscape into which they were born. Millennials and Gen Z workers – who in many cases were using cellphones, laptops and tablets well before entering the workforce – are challenging safety professionals with pre-existing MSD risks that simply did not exist for previous generations. Ergonomists across industries report that this cohort joins the workforce with neck, back and shoulder pain that can be exacerbated by their everyday job duties.

All five generations have unique working and learning styles as well as different priorities that can make it challenging to manage them with a single strategy. Older workers who value face-to-face interaction and direct communication are likely to benefit from traditional training programs and in-person coaching from certified experts. Gen X, Millennial and Gen Z workers, who are typically more comfortable with technology, may respond better to a more modern approach to training. They are more likely to accept wearable devices, ergonomics software and gamified learning techniques.

Holistic Ergonomics for the Modern Workforce
Fortunately, a whole-worker approach to ergonomics can encompass the various learning styles, values and risk factors of all five generations of workers. Here’s how.

While the field of ergonomics has existed for decades, recent years have seen a dramatic shift in how employers utilize the science to manage safety outcomes. Informed by the NIOSH Total Worker Health framework of employee safety (see, a new, holistic take on ergonomics includes five key elements, described below.

1. Wellness
Opportunities for rest and mobility are key to long-term employee wellness. While not often considered core to the ergonomics field, fatigue management, nutritional education and mental health counseling are deeply intertwined with the outcomes that ergonomists hope to secure for workers. A safety program centered on wellness drives the entire workforce toward a total worker health approach, and supporting worker wellness at all stages of life contributes to healthier, happier, more engaged employees who are less likely to suffer injuries.

2. Early Symptom Intervention
By utilizing wearable devices, new AI-based observation tools, and on-site monitoring and coaching, safety professionals can identify early signs of risk among workers of any age group. Hands-on pain-relief therapies and direct one-on-one coaching will help older workers deal with risk before it turns into an injury. Younger workers benefit from tools – such as ergonomically designed equipment, blue light filters and desktop ergonomics software – to target and retrain potentially risky behaviors before they develop into chronic pain and soft-tissue disorders.

3. Injury Prevention

Risk assessment has always been a key component of any ergonomics program, and it remains essential in today’s world. Ergonomic evaluations can benefit virtually every type of worker, targeting the most common sources of injury risk in workstation, task and facility design while also identifying problematic behaviors and biomechanical techniques. Regular breaks for frontline workers performing high-exertion tasks can curb injury rates; meanwhile, frequent opportunities to stand up and move are essential for those workers whose jobs are computer-based.

4. Return to Work
When workplace injuries occur, it’s incumbent upon employers to support workers through the recovery process. Hands-on therapies can alleviate pain and support long-term soft-tissue and joint health, while administrative interventions (e.g., task redistribution, job modification, gradual work hardening) will allow employees to rejoin the workforce while developing the strength and conditioning needed to ensure that injuries do not recur.

5. Technology
Technology is now occupying an increasing share of safety budgets as employers turn to mobile applications to support wellness, wearable devices to monitor fatigue and overexertion symptoms, and software to enhance existing ergonomics training programs. Likewise, tools such as exoskeletons and sensors can augment workers’ strength and track exertion data to help generate improvements in task design for the future.

Employers should continue to expect their workforces to include workers of several generations. Eventually, Generation Alpha will also join the workforce, bringing their own unique traits, values and risk factors. Successful health and safety outcomes will be delivered by organizations and leaders who act early to develop holistic ergonomics strategies and whole-worker solutions. For those who have yet to incorporate the multigenerational reality of today’s workforce into their programming, there’s no time like the present.

About the Author: Kevin Lombardo is the president and CEO of DORN Companies (, a Colorado-based ergonomics and injury prevention firm.


Kevin Lombardo

About the Author: Kevin Lombardo is the president and CEO of DORN Companies (, a Colorado-based ergonomics and injury prevention firm.