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Does your health and safety program consider older workers? 8 tips to support them

Does your health and safety program consider older workers? 8 tips to support them

The Nepean Sports Complex in Ottawa recently made the national news after hiring two older workers – one age 64 and the other age 80 – as lifeguards, noting they bring impeccable credentials, long experience, and a strong work ethic to the job.

Many workplaces have discovered the same thing after turning to older workers and retired employees to fill critical gaps during the pandemic and labour shortage. “Older workers bring enormous gifts to the workplace,” says WSPS Consultant Tova Larsen. They include expertise, emotional maturity, critical judgement, loyalty, and, of course, priceless and in-depth knowledge and history of your business and how it operates. 

So why aren’t we hiring and retaining older workers more often? “Society has long made assumptions about people’s mental acuity and physical capabilities based on age and physical appearance,” notes Tova. 

Some of those assumptions were busted during the pandemic too. “We saw older workers not only adopt but also adapt to, technology – really proving that the stereotype of older people being ‘technophobic’ is profoundly untrue.”

What really happens to our abilities as we age? And how can workplaces harness and hold on to the talents of older workers while managing these changes? Tova offers 8 tips. 

How aging affects us

The process of aging can affect:

  • balance and stability – biological factors that increase the risk of falls.

  • musculoskeletal system – musculoskeletal injuries (MSDs) often develop over time, with long-tenured staff exposed to hazards longer.

  • cardiovascular and respiratory systems – breathing capacity decreases as we age, affecting our ability to do extended physical labour and tolerate very hot and very cold temperatures.

  • sleep – changes to our circadian rhythm affect the length and quality of sleep, increasing the risk of fatigue, especially among shift workers. 

  • cognitive ability – older workers take more time to think through problems and learn new skills.

8 tips for employers 

“The goal for employers is to create strong health and safety programs that set everyone up for success in the workplace no matter where they are on life’s journey,” says Tova. Keeping older workers safe also requires employers and supervisors to be mindful, creative, and flexible.

  1. Have a robust slip, trips, and falls prevention program. “Slips, trips, and falls are the number one cause of lost-time injuries for older workers. By eliminating fall hazards, we’re not only reducing the risk of injury for older workers, but for everyone.”

  2. Help older workers maintain their balance by providing stools or leaning surfaces, as well as carts for manual materials handling. “This eliminates the need for the worker to carry heavy items, which may affect their centre of gravity and increase the likelihood of a fall,” says Tova. 

  3. Invest in ergonomics. Workstations and job tasks need to match the needs of every individual worker. Provide workstation assessments, adaptable tools, and adjustable equipment to prevent MSDs from occurring.

  4. Reduce the size of loads for older workers and provide flexible working hours. “For example, an older worker who in the past had the cardiovascular and respiratory capacity to work a standard 8-hour shift or to lift heavy objects may now have the capacity for four- or six-hour shifts and/or require lower lift maximums.”

  5. Make sure your heat stress program is effective and includes extra accommodations for older workers. “Older bodies become less efficient at dissipating excess heat, so older workers experience the effects of heat more quickly,” says Tova. Solutions include shorter shifts, more indoor work cycles, and more frequent and longer cooling breaks. 

  6. If fatigue is an issue, talk to the worker about what schedule works best for them. “Different people will be at their best at different times of day,” says Tova. 

  7. Work with a sleep specialist to determine a shiftwork schedule for older workers. “Fast changes in shifts increase the risk of fatigue and fatigue-related incidents. A slower adjustment is needed to move the worker’s circadian rhythm.”

  8. Provide training for older workers that considers changes in cognitive ability. “Older workers may have difficulty doing tasks quickly or doing many tasks at one time. Practical training that builds on what they already know, and opportunities to practice will ensure they get up to speed.”

How WSPS can help 

Do you need more than health and safety information and training? Are you looking for one-on-one guidance and support? Health and safety consulting could be the solution for you. WSPS experts offer a wide variety of occupational health and safety consulting services and can work with you to build a custom plan personalized to your business.



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