The aging field service workforce is a concern for many companies. Retirement strips the field of knowledge and experience that is difficult to be quantified — or replaced. Customer satisfaction can take a hit when inexperienced technicians, who are unfamiliar with both machines and individual customer requirements, take the reins. Mentoring programs and knowledge-capture processes can lessen the impact of brain drain that is a worry for companies with tenured employees. But there is another very real problem that many businesses turn a blind-eye to: health problems and injuries of older workers that result in lost productivity.

A recent on-the-job knee injury to my 54-year-old leg taught me a painful lesson: My body, which once allowed me to mountain bike or ski the entire weekend after a 60-hour work week, is no longer as durable as it once was. I’ve always prioritized exercise and overall health in my lifestyle decisions, so when I felt the shooting pain and the bone-grinding aftermath of kneeling down to take a voltage reading, I started thinking about how companies can help their service reps avoid similar injuries.

First, the Statistics


While there’s no doubt that safety equipment and safe operating procedures have prevented innumerable accidents and injuries, they do still occur — especially for older workers. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, non-fatal work-related injuries among the 20-34 crowd averaged a 5.5-day recovery period, while the 55 and older group took an average of 15 days to recover. There was a slight (but mostly insignificant) increase of frequency of injuries for older workers, which for me was encouraging, but the wide gap in the rate of healing made my meniscus throb. It is also bad news for companies with a lot of older workers.

It’s best to take steps to encourage good health and work habits before a chronic injury, such as a back problem, develops.

This missed time can be costly. According to an article from the Center for Disease Control, productivity losses linked to employees who miss work cost employers $225.8 billion per year. And even when injury isn’t the culprit, things like workplace stress and chronic diseases contribute to worker absence and a lack of productivity.

What’s a company to do? Part of the answer might be wearable technology.

Next-Gen Tech to Monitor Workers’ Vitals

Companies like Honeywell, Fujitsu and GE have developed wearable hardware and software that can detect everything from environmental hazards to brain activity to promote worker safety. Honeywell, for example, has collaborated with Intel to develop a prototype “mobile hub” that can pull data from sensors built into self-contained breathing apparatus. Other sensors worn in various places monitor heart-rate, toxic gas exposure, breathing, posture and motion.

Fujitsu, has begun marketing several wearables called, “UBIQUITOUSWARE.” One of the ten new products offered is a ‘Vital Sign Sensing Band,’ worn on the wrist to monitor a worker’s heart rate, body and environment temperatures, location, and if the wearer has fallen. Another is the location badges and tags product, designed to pin-point the location of an individual within a margin of 30 cm and a one-second delay.

The GE smart helmet, meanwhile, goes well beyond simple monitoring of the wearer’s physical condition. When fully developed, silicon photo multipliers will work like a miniature PET scanner to monitor a brain at the cellular level. This will allow doctors to observe a patient’s brain activity while at work or play; instead of within the confines of a hospital diagnostic room. According to GE, “its goals range from developing new ways to image the brain and study its function, to uncovering, treating and preventing brain disease and disorders like Alzheimer’s, autism and concussions.”

GE smart helmet

Encouraging Healthy Living

As the CDC’s report shows us, loss productivity can just as easily be a result of activities outside of work. Many companies have tied healthy lifestyle choices with healthcare open-enrollment each year. Verified non-smoking employees often get a discount on their insurance premiums, and some companies offer wellness plans that help workers set goals and attain them. Discounts to fitness centers or providing a work-out room in-house are also great ideas.

But I don’t need stats to tell you what I’ve seen my colleagues have gotten older. Knee, back, heart and carpal tunnel problems have replaced the weekend-warrior torn ligaments and broken bones of my early days as a field service rep. Sports-related injuries can be serious, but I don’t remember a tech missing work every six months because his clavicle sometimes slips when he gets out of bed in the morning. It’s best to take steps to encourage good health and work habits before a chronic injury, such as a back problem, develops.

There may never be a wearable device that prevents a torn meniscus on a knee that has seen 31 years of kneeling and squatting for hours at a time. But hopefully, companies will wake-up to the reality that their workers will reach an age when a lifetime of difficult working conditions, bad work habits, poorly designed repair procedures, improper safety equipment and a denial that employers can have a positive effect their employees’ physical health will cost companies — and their technicians — dearly in the end.

Images courtesy of Unsplash, GE