Keep your aging workforce productive with ergonomics

Feb 06, 2014

Aging workerFebruary 28 is Repetitive Strain Injuries Day, a great time to introduce new injury prevention measures and reinforce best practices. Here are some tips for workplaces with a maturing workforce.

How an aging population affects our workplaces depends on the nature of the work, how well we recognize the strengths and challenges of growing older, and even our own attitudes towards aging, says Sandra Patterson, an ergonomist with WSPS.

Patterson promotes creative ergonomic solutions to potential barriers of all kinds, including aging. This is also a topic of interest for Dr. Harry Shannon, a McMaster University professor and chair of the Methodology Working Group for the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging1. Shannon spoke about health, safety and our aging workforce at a recent plenary session hosted by the Institute for Work & Health.

Before WSPS Network News shares insights and tips from both Shannon and Patterson, here's some context.

The stereotype of older workers

During his presentation, Harry Shannon outlined the following stereotypes. Older workers

  • are less physically able
  • have more problems with co-workers
  • want more time with families
  • are less technologically savvy
  • are less willing to adapt to volatile environments.

Overall, goes the stereotype, older workers don't do the job as well. But it's not true, says Shannon. In fact, older workers

  • have greater verbal skills
  • are more motivated
  • feel less anxiety, depression or work stress
  • are more safety conscious
  • are on time more
  • are less absent
  • display fewer counterproductive behaviours
  • are less aggressive
  • abuse substances on the job less.

What this means for the workplace

Shannon acknowledges that while our ability to perform extended physical work drops, we maintain most of our mental acuity and the strength to perform most jobs. However, we may be more susceptible to

  • fractures from falls
  • injuries from short-term exertion
  • musculoskeletal and repetitive strain injuries
  • extremes in temperature.

We may also be less able to

  • hear alarms or verbal instructions in noisy environments
  • read print materials, dials and screens in normal lighting conditions
  • adapt to changing light conditions.

"All this means," says WSPS's Sandra Patterson, "is that we need to match the demands of the job to the capabilities of the individuals. Start with the people, not the job."

How to protect workers and eliminate productivity barriers

The following solutions aren't just for aging workers. "These are things we should be doing to maximize the health, safety and productivity of all workers," says Patterson.

Manual materials handling: provide lifting devices, minimize loads by packing goods in smaller quantities and containers, and use lighter materials, suggests Shannon.

Patterson recommends optimizing the manual material handling zone by limiting lifting to the area between a worker's knuckles and shoulders. For example:

  • introduce scissor-lift tables to keep the work zone at a convenient height. “If this is too costly, then stack three or four skids to elevate the work surface to this zone.
  • plan workflow to eliminate repeated handling of the same object
  • provide enough space in the work zone so that workers can avoid placing items on the floor, and then having to pick them up later
  • eliminate carrying loads up and down ladders. "Maintaining three points of contact while carrying loads is a challenge for any worker, so use an elevating platform or have a co-worker hand off the load."

Repetitive tasks: "Some older workers may have less stamina, tire more quickly, and require more recovery time," says Patterson. "If possible, allow them to control the pace of work themselves. Alternatively, could you create overflow areas where items can wait until workers are ready to deal with them? Can workers create self-directed rest breaks so that they can take advantage of natural breaks in their job to stretch or rest and recover?"

Extreme movements, excessive force and awkward postures: provide adjustable seating and workstations, says Shannon. "To maximize grip strength and dexterity," says Patterson, "increase the grip size of handles (larger handles require less bending of fingers), and replace knobs with levers."

To protect workers' hearing and improve verbal communications, reduce ambient noise levels, and reduce long-term and repeated exposure to noise. To maximize visual acuity, provide task lighting, apply non-glare finishes to desks, floors, walls, and signage, and use larger fonts on screens, print materials and signs.

"Above all," says Patterson, "recognize individual differences. For example, shiftwork is difficult for a lot of people because it can throw off their natural internal clocks, but some people thrive on night shifts." Other work organization considerations include part-time work, job sharing or phased retirement, which may allow you to retain valuable workers who aren't interested in or lack the stamina for full-time work.

"We should be measuring productivity not by the hours people put in but the quality of their work," says Patterson. "Often it just takes a little flexibility. Creating a more flexible work environment in terms of how, when and the way in which work is performed can benefit everyone."

How WSPS can help

  • Check out our hazard assessment and MSD resources.
  • Talk to a consultant about conducting an MSD hazard assessment in your workplace.
  • Attend related sessions at Partners in Prevention 2014 Health & Safety Conference & Trade Show, taking place April 29-30 in Mississauga:
    • Conducting Office Ergonomics Assessments (1-day professional development course)
    • Manual Material Handling - Think Before you Move It
    • Optimizing Industrial Heavy Equipment Seating to Minimize Whole Body Vibration - A Case Study

1Launched in 2013, the Canadian Longitudinal Study on Aging is a national, long-term study that will follow 50,000 men and women between the ages of 45 and 85 for at least 20 years. The study will collect information on the changing biological, medical, psychological, social, lifestyle and economic aspects of people's lives.