Protecting older workers: a productivity imperative

Aug 15, 2012

While accommodating Canada’s aging workforce may be a rising priority for the health and safety community, Ian Howcroft, vice president of Canadian Manufacturers & Exporters Ontario, says it’s not just about health and safety.

“We have to address the productivity gap that we’re facing globally,” said Howcroft in a recent conversation with HSO Network News. “One way to do that is to ensure that employers have the skilled workers they need, and continue investing in their workers so that they’re working to full effectiveness and efficiency.

“Employers tell us they’re having a hard time today finding workers with the skills they need,” continued Howcroft. “Demographics across society are such that this is going to get even worse because the workforce is aging. When you look at it from the human resource side and the skills side, it’s quite an enormous issue. When we look at it through a health and safety lens, a health care lens, and a pension lens, it has implications for employer costs as well. Because of global competitive pressures, we can’t ignore it.”

Many employers have already been looking at health and safety, the composition of their workforce, and what they need to do to move forward and improve productivity, said Howcroft. “When you look at Ontario’s lost-time injury frequency rate, we’ve seen a remarkable reduction. This is a very positive sign that workplaces are taking steps to prevent injuries and promote worker well-being. There are still many steps to be taken, but overall we have seen some remarkable success.”

Older workers: the value proposition

In a presentation on our aging workforce at Health & Safety Ontario’s May 1-2 Partners in Prevention conference and trade show, Howcroft listed benefits of retaining older workers. For instance, they

  • represent the collective wisdom of your business
  • train and mentor younger workers
  • fill leadership gaps
  • have low turnover rates
  • are conscientious and emotionally stable, demonstrating high work performance and quality
  • are independent problem-solvers
  • require less supervision
  • generally have higher levels of well-being
  • have positive attitudes
  • reflect your aging customer base, helping to increase market share

To retain these workers, Howcroft advised creating fair, inclusive policies that provide

  • some degree of job autonomy
  • some input into job-related decisions
  • clear lines of communication and feedback
  • challenging but realistic job expectations
  • appropriate growth opportunities

“Policies with these features can benefit all employees,” Howcroft told HSO Network News, “but I think it’s something you have to be particularly mindful of when dealing with older workers. We sometimes have a tendency to take our long-time workers for granted and focus instead on younger and newer workers. They’re important too, but we need to continually work on all our relationships.”

Safer and healthier strategies for an aging workforce

Here are some strategies you can use in your workplace to keep your aging workforce healthier and safer.

  • Prioritize workplace flexibility. Workers prefer jobs that offer more flexibility over those that offer more vacation days. To the extent possible, give workers a say in their work schedule, conditions, organization, location, and tasks. 
  • Match tasks to abilities. Use self-paced work, self-directed rest breaks, and less repetitive tasks.
  • Avoid prolonged, sedentary work. It’s bad for workers of any age. Consider sit/stand workstations and walking workstations for workers who traditionally sit all day. Provide onsite physical activity opportunities or connections to low-cost community options.
  • Identify, assess and manage hazards, including noise, slips/trips, and other physical hazards and conditions that may challenge aging workers more than younger workers.
  • Provide ergo-friendly work environments, including workstations, tools, floor surfaces, adjustable seating, better illumination where needed, and screens and surfaces with less glare. 
  • Employ teams and teamwork strategies for aging-associated problem solving. Workers closest to the problem are often best equipped to find the fix.
  • Provide health promotion and lifestyle interventions including physical activity, healthy meal options, stop-smoking assistance, risk factor reduction and screenings, coaching, and onsite medical care. Accommodate medical self-care in the workplace and time away for health visits.
  • Invest in training and building worker skills and competencies at all age levels. Help older employees adapt to new technologies, which are often a concern for them and, as a result, for employers. 
  • Proactively manage reasonable accommodations and the return-to-work process after illness or injury absences.
  • Provide aging workforce management skills training for supervisors. Include a focus on the most effective ways to manage a multi-generational workplace.

Adapted from “Safer and Healthier at Any Age: Strategies for an Aging Workforce,” a July 19 blog posted by L. Casey Chosewood, the U.S. National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)’s senior medical officer for Total Worker Health.

How we can help

Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS) helps member firms and clients reduce the risk of injury or illness among workers of all ages. Check out our resources in any of the following areas:

Watch for a managed systems approach to our aging workforce in an upcoming issue of HSO Network Magazine.