Occupational Health and Safety in the Workplace – An Aging Workforce

For many employers the aging workforce represents the employees they value the most; they are often the employees that work the hardest in the workplace, they have the most experience and they bring the most to the table.

Human Resources and Skills Development Canada data states that in 2011, about 41 percent of the working population was between 45 and 64 years of age.  A short 10 years before 2011, this percentage was at 29.

These employees also present a unique challenge when looking at occupational health and safety, return to work from disability and general disability management practices.

While dominating the workforce, baby boomers often continue working past what has in the past been seen as a “normal” retirement age.  Continuing to work for these employees can be attributed to a number of factors, including personal enjoyment and real meaning in their work, no available pension plan, or the fact that these employees did not put aside enough money during the time they were working, or the very fact that perhaps they did not accumulate enough pensionable years to replace their income.

No employer would want to lose a valued employee, particularly one with vast experience and a good work ethic.  Baby boomers or senior workers have a lot to bring to the table, and with the right accommodation strategy this can work to an employer’s advantage.

Most importantly, workplace dynamics are changing and organizations must walk a tightrope between their duty to accommodate an aging workforce against legitimate occupational requirements, and health and safety concerns. And as the percentage of aging employees grows every year, the stakes are getting higher.

Challenges

The prevention of work related symptoms and disease is always a high priority in any age group, but new challenges facing aging workers are increasing at an alarming rate.  How will the aging workforce cope and manage chronic symptoms and diseases?  What can health experts do to prevent the early exit of those employees experiencing chronic health problems?

Treating disease is not enough.  The new challenge is to find the adjustments and accommodations in the workplace for employees due to deterioration of health.  The knowledge and experience of occupational specialists should be used for a better health adjusted working life.  These occupational health practitioners can play an important role in making a longer and more successful working life a reality for all employees.

Solutions and Accommodation

One of the first questions an employer should ask is whether aging workers require special accommodations.  A well designed and balanced workplace benefits all employees.  Workstations, job tasks and all functions that are well matched to the strengths and needs of the employee are best.  Employers know that they will need to find different conditions for every worker in order to meet the needs of all employees, not just those who are older.

There are certain accommodations that are required for older workers in terms of work safety.  These are required as a result of the physical and cognitive changes that occur while a person ages.

It can be said that older workers have physiological changes which would put them at an increased risk for workplace injuries, and these employees may also have longer absences from the workplace once they have been injured.  The best approach to this challenge is the use of ergonomic interventions.

A large number of workplace injuries are the result of employees performing repetitive movements and tasks.  Repetitive motion injuries develop over a period of time.  Because this is the case, older workers may report more musculoskeletal injuries as they have had a longer period of time for the condition to develop.  An increasing number of injuries may also be related to physiological changes associated with aging.  When employees, regardless of age, are pushed to work harder than they safely can, there is always a risk for injury.

Because older workers can have more severe injuries when they do occur, it is important to make the appropriate adjustments to work stations or work patterns to make them as safe as possible.  Ensuring an employee is well suited for a particular task and is safely able to perform the functions of this task is also crucial.

Ergonomic intervention which is important in all age groups provides the opportunity to make an inconsistent contribution when effectively applied to an older workforce.

Summary

All employers should be aware of the challenges facing their aging workforce.  Ergonomic interventions are often the best way in which to ensure employees are working safely and at their most optimum capacity.

About A.R.S.

A.R.S. understands that challenges facing an aging workforce are issues that are concerning to all employers.  Developing an effective ergonomic plan for the workplace is crucial when managing and minimizing accidents and injuries in the workplace for all employees, but particularly for those who are aging.

A.R.S. is also able to provide ergonomic assessments and assessors for our valued employer clients across the country that will provide effective management of occupational injuries for all employees.

For additional information regarding Ergonomic Assessments and all other Employer Services offered by A.R.S. please contact:

Mary Crunkleton – Director of Employer Services
mary@arsi.ca
Telephone: 416-510-2468 or Toll Free: 1-877-304-2239

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