Podcast Title: Health and Safety to Go!
Episode #124: Health and Safety Solutions for the Aging Workforce
Introduction Welcome to Health and Safety to Go, broadcasting from the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety.
Host: Thank you for joining us for this episode of Health and Safety to Go.
The number of older workers in Canada is on the rise. According to Statistics Canada, by the year 2021, nearly one in four workers could be aged 55 years or over. So what does this demographic trend mean for organizations that want to keep their workers healthy and safe? Today Jan Chappel, Senior Technical Specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety will shed some light on what workplaces can do to accommodate the aging population.
Thank you for joining us today Jan.
Jan: Thank you for having me.
Host: Jan, what is an “aging worker” and why should workplaces familiarize themselves with the issues that concern this group?
Jan: Aging is one of those terms that when we first think of it, we usually think it means “the other guy”. When researchers tend to look at workers at about 45 and older, there are some physical changes that start as early as age 20, so it’s all of us. Workplaces can benefit by knowing the characteristics and abilities of all of their workers in order to help each group.
Host: Jan, what health and safety challenges does an aging workforce present to the workplace?
Jan: In general, the challenges are around physical changes that happen to all of us as we age. There are changes in many areas such as physical strength, posture and balance, sleep regulation, thermoregulation, vision, and hearing.
Host: Are older workers more susceptible to certain types of injuries?
Jan: It’s a good question, the answer is yes and no, because it depends what statistics you are looking at. Injuries in older workers tend to be those that are more severe –such as back strain or repetitive strain – but overall the frequency of these injuries occurs less often. But older workers also tend to have longer recovery times. In contrast, young workers tend to have more traumatic injuries, like a burn, cut, scrape, bruise. They are more likely to be struck by an object, or caught in equipment.
For older workers, in general, they tend to have injuries as a result of a loss of strength, endurance, or flexibility. Older workers also have the effect of accumulation over time. This could be the time and exposure to a similar movement for example, or to a chemical or product exposure in the case of occupational disease.
Now I do want to point out that for those people who are very aware of injury statistics, don’t forget that strains and sprains in general are the leading cause of injury for all groups. I know this is a bit of a mixed message, but don’t take these generalizations to say that young workers will never get a strain injury.
And, unfortunately for many of us, time is not kind to us in general. As we age, workers may also experience health issues such as cardio-pulmonary disease. Cardio-pulmonary disease means, in general, it’s harder to catch your breath and endurance is an issue. When you combine this disease with working at a fast pace, or say using a respirator, or climbing a ladder, the effects of over-exertion can be even greater.
Host: What can the workplace do to address the challenges presented by an aging workforce and keep older workers safe on the job?
Jan: There are many challenges actually, so the solutions also really vary. We can give a couple of examples here. The two things we notice the most as we age are strength and our vision. So we will talk about those two.
To counter loss of strength and motion, we can conduct a job hazard analysis so we know how much effort is involved with the various tasks. Once we know the demands of each job, we can choose options that will help us best. These options might be mechanical assist for lifting, a better workstation design, even down to better product storage areas so we reduce the need to lift all together. Keeping good balance is also important. So we can also design a workplace better to have good floor surfaces. We don’t want gravel, or say slippery marble, or other surfaces, and we can help workers have the right footwear. We can make sure that handrails, grips and handles are all in place.
The other change we often notice is vision, so to accommodate vision changes, it’s important to realize it’s not just reading distance that’s an issue, even though that is the one we notice most. Other changes to our eyes mean it’s harder to see on the peripheral. These are things to your side when you are not directly looking that way. Your visual acuity changes, so things are not as clear as they were. Your depth perception changes, and we have a much lower resistance to glare. Overall, our eyes are not as able to see as well as in our youth and did you know that as we age, we see ½ to 2/3 less light that reaches the back of our eye? So it really is harder for us to see as we age.
Solutions include good lighting (but not with glare), a good clear computer monitor, and good contrast between the text and background. This solution also applies in industrial settings where accuracy in a pick-and-place assembly line, for example really matters.
This challenge is a good area to also remind us that some of the solutions are not necessarily what we would call core health and safety ones, but other areas like benefits and medical coverage can be looked at to make sure they cover the aging worker needs. Everyone will need at least a pair of reading glasses at some point, and having benefits to cover these costs is a solution.
Host: We’ve talked about the challenges to the workers themselves and to the organization, but what are some of the benefits that come with an aging workforce?
Jan: The benefits come from experience, knowledge, and strategic thinking. Older workers are your seasoned veterans --- this means they know what to do when and when! Studies have not shown a consistent relationship between aging and productivity. Studies have shown that older workers may work a little slower, or make decisions a bit slower, but their work tends to be more accurate and the decisions more correct.
When learning new material, all adults tend to base new information on what they know already. Some studies report that older workers may learn slower (maybe), but show no difference in performance and accuracy once the material is learned. And when in the workplace, people develop habits and tricks to help them adapt over time. If there is one consistency with learning, it’s that older workers do not multi-task as well. They need the time to practice and to master the skill, and they learn better in environments with a little less “flash” or distraction. But once they learn the task, their performance is good.
I’ll start to wrap up with a quote from “Safety and Health” magazine from the US. The article is quoting a NIOSH researcher. She says:
“Research has indicated that, beginning at middle age, adults start to accumulate more emotional stability and emotional intelligence, according to Juliann Scholl, a NIOSH health communication fellow. This suggests that older workers not only know how to avoid certain risks, but also are more willing to speak up or point out patterns that could lead to injuries, Scholl said.”
Older workers do bring experience and knowledge to an organization. They need less supervision and have a high level of commitment and dedication.
For an organization, it is important to be committed to protecting the entire workforce by assessing the health and safety risks, and getting feedback from their workers. Think about how the task is done, and how to best match the person to the job.
I’m often am asked if this is a health and safety issue. My answer is always both yes and no. I truly feel a well-designed, well organized workplace benefits everyone.
Host: Thank you again for joining us today, Jan. You’ve shared some great ideas and insight on the aging workforce. For more information on this topic and many others, please visit ccohs.ca. Thanks for listening everyone.