An emerging issue among all nonprofit organizations, including Habitat for Humanity, is how to safely utilize older volunteers—in particular, the over-60 population—in supporting the company’s mission.
- The Center for Disease Control and Prevention reports there are 44.7 million adults in the U.S. who are 65 years of age or older. This number is projected to continue growing.
- A report by Independent Sector and AARP advised that 47 percent of working Americans from the over-50 population volunteer, and 42 percent of retired Americans in the same age group volunteer.
While this demographic group represents a great pool of potential Habitat for Humanity volunteers, there are substantial risks to keep in mind.
Whether they are assigned to work in a ReStore or on a job site (or both), special consideration must be given to which kinds of tasks are appropriate and safe for them to perform.
Certain tasks on job sites involve an increased risk of injury, such as using power tools and working on a roof. That’s why it’s extremely important to consider the physical qualities and capabilities of each volunteer (regardless of age) when doling out tasks.
It’s natural that your older volunteers may not realize or accept the possibility that their physical ability is not what it once was, making them less qualified or proficient for some jobs.
The following are potential physical limitations that you should consider when assigning tasks to an older volunteer:
- 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
CLAIMS INVOLVING OLDER VOLUNTEERS
According to a CDC study, among older adults falls are the leading cause of both fatal and nonfatal injuries. In 2013, 2.5 million nonfatal falls among older adults were treated in emergency departments and more than 734,000 of these patients were hospitalized. The direct medical costs of falls, adjusted for inflation, was $34 billion in 2013.
Unfortunately, we have had a number of claims involving older volunteers in the insurance program:
- 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 heel, compressed disc, broken ribs and a cut hand.
- A 60-year-old volunteer was working in the attic of a home under construction when she stepped off a secure walkway onto an unsecured cross brace which gave way. She fell approximately eight feet to the concrete below, and sustained a vertebra fracture.
- A 70-year-old volunteer slipped off the roof and fell to the ground. Injuries included a tendon tear in his pelvic area, a cut to the head and broken vertebrae.
These debilitating injuries make it hard for older individuals to get around or live independently, greatly impacting their quality of life. Sadly, such grave injuries can increase the risk of early death because of the potential for medical complications and physical fragility.
SO, WHAT CAN YOU DO?
Fortunately, there are several things your affiliate can do to help ensure the safety of your older volunteers and reduce the risk of injury.
Here are eight ways to address the issue:
- Have all volunteers go through orientation and training. We offer a free online safety training course just for volunteers on the volunteers page.
- 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 tasks 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. Would you rather have an upset volunteer or visit an injured volunteer in the hospital?
- Tasks involving heights—such as roofs, scaffolds, trusses, etc.—should be avoided where older volunteers are concerned due to the increased potential for 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 two hours or longer and encourage all volunteers to let a manager or 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 should describe relevant medical conditions along with medications and emergency contact information.
If you have any questions about this topic please call the Habitat for Humanity Affiliate Insurance Program at 888-553-9002. Thank you for your dedication to safety!
- 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.