Bill Vigilante: Everyday Safety Challenges for Seniors and the Elderly

About Bill Vigilante: Dr. Vigilante is a human factors and ergonomics consultant with experience researching topics related to pedestrian and premises safety, driver performance, roadway safety, lighting, night vision, the designing of warning and instructional information, risk perception, the effects of aging on performance, as well as safety and product design. Dr. Vigilante’s extensive resume includes the publication of dozens of scientific papers in the field of human factors and ergonomics. He has also testified as an expert witness in federal and state courthouses across the country. Dr. Vigilante’s expertise is in studying human performance issues and assessing how they should be used in the investigation to determine if and how they may have played a role in the outcome of an event. One issue includes aging. 

In this episode, Steve and Bill discuss:

1. What are human factors and ergonomics?

  • Human factors or ergonomics is the study of how people use all different types of products, how they interact with their environments, how they move about their environments, and essentially human factors and ergonomics is basically designing for peoples use. 

2. Is your focus on how to make something safer for everyday people?

  • Yes, there are three goals for human factors and ergonomics in design. To improve efficiency, user comfort, and the third pillar or goal of human factors, and ergonomics is safety. 

3. Why should the senior and elderly community care about human factors and ergonomics? Is it because safety is such a big concern for them because of aging?

  • It’s certainly part of it and the other part of it is that from a human factors and ergonomics standpoint, because we’re interested in the user, we want to be able to identify all the different potential characteristics of the users that are going to be involved with the product or the environment. If you’re dealing with things that are more geared toward the elderly population, you want to make sure that those characteristics, abilities, and limitations are directly addressed.

4. Are products generally made with the aging population in mind?

  • There are designers manufacturers of products specifically for those products geared to an older or elderly population. So for example, medications or medical devices that are geared towards elderly folks tend to take into consideration the abilities and limitations of older adults in their design whether it be the size of the product or the size of the print on the labeling, or it could be the strength required to to use the product. For example, Tylenol, ibuprofen, or another over the counter medication that is used for the general public typically come with childproof caps on them. Childproof caps are great to prevent young kids from getting into the medication, but they are an impediment to older adults using the medication. One of the characteristics and limitations you find is that they’re more likely to have problems with strength and rotation of the hands and wrists. Childproof caps become problematic for an older adult. 

5. In your opinion, are there product manufacturers that missed the boat and are actually a big problem for the senior and elder population? 

  • There are and that’s generally a big problem. When you go to a home improvement store, or a grocery store, the labeling on the product packaging is presented in font sizes, that is the size of the text in sizes that are too small or difficult for older adults to read. One of the issues that older people have or people encounter and becomes more problematic as the age is that some of their visual abilities decrease and are more likely to decrease. The ability to read small print on a packaging becomes more and more difficult as we progress past the age of approximately 40 with being really difficult when we get into our 70s and 80s. If the product manufacturer, the warning designer or the instructional material designer isn’t keeping that into account, they can provide a very small text on their product labels. That creates problems for the elderly trying to figure out what the proper way to use the product is, and or what are the hazards and risks that they need to be aware of.

6. Is that a big problem with pharmaceutical companies or other businesses still today?

  • It usually points back to a bad design? Because The designers are more worried about putting all the information into the smallest possible size on to the smallest possible label for various reasons. They’re not recognizing that they’re making it difficult not just for elderly users, but for all users to be able to read and access that information. 

7. Can you give an example of a danger that could be posed as a result of making the font or the print too small?

  • Sure. So for example, if you go down to a home improvement store and you pick up a product that has flammable or has physical hazards associated with it, maybe it’s combustible vapor that is the vapor can travel tuning to a to ignition source like a lit pilot light and travel back and explode the container. If the font size is too small or if the warnings printed on a small font size on the back of the can, an elderly user who’s looking for information, may not be able to read that information and may not realize that risk is there and then potentially expose themselves to it.

8. Have you given your expert testimony to this type of situation in your capacity as a human factors expert? 

  • It does occur. Oftentimes the labeling is problematic because the information is presented in small text and the other problem I typically see is the information is presented in a condensed format. We found from testing both younger and older adults, that if you break that information up into a bulleted list, with white spacing, or more spacing between different topics, it’s easier for the user to read. They can capture more information from reading the label. They’re also a bit more willing to read the label because it’s not difficult. So one of the things we know from a human factors and ergonomics standpoint is that if you make things difficult or uncomfortable for the user, they’re not going to want to do it. This also has safety ramifications. If you make things too difficult, or increase the cost of compliance you’re going to see reduction in people doing what is proper, what is necessary, or what is needed to be safe.

9. What are some of the problems from a human factors standpoint that you see that results in slip and falls, especially amongst elders and seniors?

  • Older adults are more susceptible to other types of problems in the walkway for reasons associated with the deteriorating strength in the legs, in the core muscles, the balance, their ability to react fast, to take what we call a compensatory step, which is essentially basically like a stumble to regain your balance. These things will become more problematic for older adults. Consequently you see that they become more susceptible to other types of problems, other types of defects in the walkway. One big disadvantage for older adults tends to be that when they do fall or when they do lose their balance they can’t recover. When they fall, they’re more at risk for significant injury, particularly a hip fracture, or broken hip. Older adults are more likely not to recover and you see a higher mortality rate from that. 

10. What can businesses or municipalities do better to take into consideration the challenges that the aging population has, when they’re walking on walkways?

  • There are walkway safety standards and building codes that focus on eliminating problematic conditions in the walkway for all users. Those codes prohibit changes in elevation over a quarter inch without having a beveled edge, a half an inch whether it’s beveled or not. What they’re doing is they’re attempting to remove potential trip hazards from the environment. The billing codes and the safety standards look to limit potential hazards. Retail store managers or property owners want to make sure they’re complying with building codes in prevalent walkways.

11. Are you seeing compliance or a lack of compliance with these retail establishments?

  • For the most part generally speaking, property owners and retailers do a good job of eliminating trip and slip hazards in their stores. I typically get involved in cases where there is a violation. None of these standards, codes, and hazards are allowed to exist in the walkway. So if you’re dealing with an environment in which you have a large population of older adults this is something you may want to keep in mind and consider. You can’t just be relying upon the minimum codes you should be going above and making sure that you have no height differentials or height differentials less than a quarter inch.

12. What challenges are senior and elderly drivers facing in the evening with the different lighting? Is it safe for seniors and elders to go out in the evening? 

  • Our visual abilities start to decrease as we age. Vision is dependent upon light so younger folks are going to have an easier time seeing than older adults. In the driving environment or even in the walking environment typically we’re identifying hazards that have potential, significant and severe consequences to our health and well being are detected visually. So you can imagine whether it’s in the driving environment or the walking environment, low light becomes problematic. It increases the risk of encountering a hazard and not avoiding it in time. So typically in the driving environment, we are dependent upon our headlights, street lighting, and to a lesser extent lighting from nearby businesses or homes. In good lighting situations, a relatively high level of street lighting, elderly drivers benefit greatly. When there’s no street lighting and when there’s no lighting from ambient buildings and so forth older drivers have a harder time at night. That puts them at greater risk of encountering roadway hazards.


“If you make things difficult or uncomfortable for the user, they’re not going to want to do it and this does have the safety ramifications.” —  Bill Vigilante

To find out more about the National Injured Senior Law Center or to set up a free consultation go to or call 855-622-6530

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Show notes by Podcastologist: Kristen Braun


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