Workers Health & Safety Centre

Aging workforce: IWH plenary explores health and safety solutions

Aging workforce: IWH plenary explores health and safety solutions

Designing work to fit the needs of an aging workforce will benefit the health and well-being of all workers, says Dr. Harry Shannon of McMaster University’s Department of Clinical Epidemiology & Biostatistics.
Dr. Shannon recently led a plenary hosted by the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) that explored health and safety-related issues presented by Canada’s aging workforce. He highlighted potential age-related factors that can lead to specific work-related injuries and illnesses. These include:

  • physical factors (e.g., loss in strength, endurance and balance);
  • mental processes/cognitive factors (e.g., memory impairment and multi-tasking ability);
  • sensory factors (e.g., vision and hearing impairment or loss); and
  • work/life balance and other stressors (e.g., care for elderly parents/spouse and tech change).

Thus for instance, older workers report slips, trips and falls at excess rates.
“If a younger person falls, they can often simply bounce back up,” explained Dr. Shannon. “If an older person falls, they likely won’t.” Shannon was referring to the fact older workers who fall in the workplace are more likely to suffer a severe injury such as a fracture. In fact, injuries suffered by older workers are often more serious and the recovery time longer than those suffered by younger workers.
Physical age-related factors may also lead older workers to report musculoskeletal disorders at rates exceeding those of young workers, says Dr. Shannon. Although, clearly a life-time of poorly designed work also plays a large role. The same can be said for hazardous exposures associated with latent negative health outcomes. Older workers suffer a disproportionate number of work-related deaths. According to statistics provided by the Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada (2011), two of every three accepted work-related death claim in Ontario was for a worker aged 55 or older. However, the bulk of these deaths, and many more never reported or recognized by compensation systems result from cancer and other work-related diseases.  
Many recognize the need to seek prevention solutions now as Canada’s aging workforce is expected to expand further. According to the 2011 Canadian National Household Survey (NHS), workers aged 55 years and over accounted for 18.7% of total employment compared to 15.5% in the 2006 Census. And this upward trend is expected to continue. Statistics Canada reports it is possible by 2021 nearly one in four workers will be 55 years of age or over.
Dr. Shannon suggested a range of prevention solutions organizations should consider when designing work and work processes for aging workers. Examples include:

  • lighter tasks;
  • lift devices/aids;
  • adjustable seating and work-stations;
  • work designed to minimize extreme movements/awkward posture/repetitive tasks;
  • reduce general workplace noise;
  • improve lighting;
  • larger lettering/good contrast on warning/instruction signage;
  • improve psycho-social conditions, including flexible work arrangements and increase job control,
  • eliminate or reduce exposure to carcinogens and other toxins, and
  • adapt training to the learning style/needs of older workers.

Shannon was quick to point out though, “Workplaces should adopt these kinds of solutions in any case, as they will benefit all workers regardless of age.”
Want additional information about Dr. Shannon’s presentation Occupational Health and Safety Issues in the Aging Workforce?
Want to learn about WHSC training that can help your workplace develop and implement policies and programs to address the needs of an aging workforce?
Call:   1-888-869-7950