Safety has been and continues to be a major focus among Habitat for Humanity affiliates nationwide. However, an emerging issue among all nonprofit organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, is how to safely utilize older volunteers (in particular, the over-60 population). Whether these older volunteers are assigned to a ReStore or a jobsite, or both, special consideration must be given to what tasks are appropriate and safe for them to perform.
According to data provided by the U.S. Census Bureau, there are over 30 million adults in the U.S. who are 65 years of age or older, and this number is projected to continue growing. A report by Independent Sector and AARP advised that, as of the date of the report, 47 percent of working Americans from the over-50 population volunteer, and 42 percent of retired Americans from the over-50 population volunteer. While this demographic group represents a great pool of potential Habitat for Humanity volunteers, there are substantial risks to keep in mind.
Certain tasks on a jobsite involve increased risk of injury, such as working on a roof. Therefore, it is extremely important to consider the attributes of each volunteer (regardless of age) when assigning tasks. Older volunteers may not realize or accept the possibility that their physical ability is not what it once was. Potential physical limitations to consider when assigning tasks to an older volunteer can include:
- Visual impairment
- Hearing loss
- Reduced dexterity
- Reduced strength
- Reduced range of motion
- Difficulty with balance
- Difficulty walking
- Reduced reflexes
- Extended healing time
- Increased risk of medical complications and fatalities from injury
Within the Habitat for Humanity Affiliate Insurance Program, there have unfortunately been several claims involving older volunteers. For example:
- A 79-year old volunteer was walking on floor trusses when he lost his footing and fell to the concrete below. Injuries included a cracked heal, compressed disc, broken ribs, and cut hand.
- A 60-year old volunteer was working in the attic of a home under construction when she stepped off a secure walkway and onto an unsecured cross brace which gave way. She fell approximately 8 feet to the concrete below, sustaining a vertebra fracture.
- A 70-year old volunteer slipped off the roof, falling to the ground. Injuries included a tendon tear in his pelvic area, a cut to the head, and broken vertebrae.
Such debilitating injuries can make it hard for older individuals to get around or live independently, severely impacting their quality of life. There may also be an increased risk of early death due to the potential for medical complications and physical fragility.
According to a recent CDC fact sheet, older individuals are hospitalized five times more often from fall-related injuries (such as those detailed above) than from any other cause, and the costs of these fall injuries increase rapidly with age. In fact, in 2005 falls among older individuals cost the U.S. health care system approximately $23.6 billion dollars.
Fortunately, there are several things your affiliate can do to help ensure the safety of your older volunteers and reduce the risk of injury. These include:
- Have all volunteers go through orientation and training. See www.hfhaffiliateinsurance.com (password = Lockton) for a link to free online safety courses, including “Volunteering on a Habitat for Humanity Job Site”.
- Talk with volunteers about what tasks they are comfortable doing, how certain tasks might be modified to alleviate any concerns, and what the expectations are for any task(s) being considered.
- DON’T assign a task to any volunteer if there are concerns about his or her ability to safely perform the task, even if the volunteer disagrees with your decision. Think of it as- Would you rather have an upset volunteer or visit an injured volunteer in the hospital?
- Tasks involving heights (i.e. roofs, scaffolds, trusses, etc.) should particularly be avoided where older volunteers are concerned due to the increased risk of injury and potential physical limitations as outlined above.
- Consider using subcontractors for high-risk tasks, such as roof work.
- Schedule regular breaks for volunteers working 2 hours or longer, and encourage all volunteers to let a manager/supervisor know when they need to take a break.
- Encourage all volunteers to ask questions or raise concerns promptly. Be sure to let them know that there are no dumb questions, and that their safety is extremely important.
- Require that all volunteers complete a medical information form, which would contain information on any relevant medical conditions along with medications and emergency contact information.
If you have any questions regarding this information, please contact the Habitat for Humanity Affiliate Insurance Program at (888) 553-9002, or the HFHI U.S. Safety Specialist, Don Hartle, at (404) 420-6730. Thank you for your dedication to safety!
- Nonprofit Risk Management Center, Fact Sheet: “Elderly as Staff”, http://www.nonprofitrisk.org/tools/workplace-safety/nonprofit/c6/elderly.htm [online]. Accessed October 24, 2011.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fact Sheet: “Costs of Falls Among Older Adults”, http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/Falls/fallcost.html [online]. Accessed October 24, 2011.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Fact Sheet: “Cost of Fall Injuries in Older Persons in the United States, 2005”, http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/falls/data/cost-estimates.html [online]. Accessed October 24, 2011.