Older but wiser: Coping with aging workforce

Older but wiser: Coping with aging workforce
The phenomenon of the aging workforce in Canada can pose numerous health and safety challenges for organizations. But health and safety experts believe that with the right strategy, employers and elderly workers can find success.

Between the abolishment of mandatory retirement at age 65 and the large and aging baby boomer demographic, workplaces across Canada are seeing more and more elderly workers stay on in the workforce, and this is posing some unique challenges for employers — particularly on health and safety.

The process of aging adversely affects workers' functional capacities, which ultimately makes it more difficult for elderly workers to perform certain tasks — even when they've performed them without incident in the past.

On the other hand, letting go of an elderly or experienced worker who is facing challenges fulfilling their role can be a complicated and costly process, and one which often involves union intervention, legal challenges and demonstrable burdens of proof.

As an ergonomist with Workplace Safety & Prevention Services (WSPS), it's a quandary that Ivan Szlapetis has been faced with many times before. In his various consultations with employers and managers, he's found it's a question that many organizations are faced with as more and more workers stay on later in life and continue to pursue employment past the age of 65.

"It's a significant concern for a lot of employers," he concedes.

At capacity
Szlapetis recalls a recent e-mail he received from a manager struggling with how to deal with an elderly worker she was supervising.

"Essentially, in her e-mail, she was asking about what they could do if an employee was no longer capable of doing the things they are required to do," he recalls. "One of the approaches she was asking about was having the employee do a functional abilities evaluation to find out how strong they are and so on and so forth."

While it's always a good idea to have an elderly worker perform a functional abilities evaluation to determine their competencies, Szlapetis warns that it's not really the first step an organization should take when determining if a worker is fit for a job.

"What I suggested to her was that one of the first things they needed to do was a physical demands analysis of the job," he says, "to find out two things: what are essential and what are non-essential functions, and what are the physical demands [of the role]?"

Rather than start by focusing on what the worker is capable of and determining if they are suitable for the role, Szlapetis argues it is more beneficial to determine what is required in the role before assessing whether the worker can handle those requirements.

"Simply stating that people are not as strong at age 65 as they were in their 20's doesn't necessarily give the employer the right to not hire somebody or to release somebody," he says. "That would likely result in a human rights claim against them. If they do let somebody go, they need to show that the strength demands are a bona fide occupational requirement, and that it would be an undue hardship to accommodate that person."

Seeking to illustrate his point with an example, Szlapetis points out that, "in trades and manufacturing, for instance, you want somebody who is a very skilled welder and fitter— that's definitely an asset. You don't necessarily need them for their ability to lift heavy objects. You need them for their expertise."

Glass half-full
For Emma Ashurst, an OHS specialist with the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), there's no doubt that employing elderly workers poses unique challenges. As she points out, though, there are also certain benefits to having older workers in the workforce.

"Some studies have shown that experienced workers tend to be more accurate," she notes. "It may take a little longer, but the accuracy is there."

Szlapetis agrees on this point. Beyond merely being reliable and consistent workers, though, he also sees an upside when it comes to using elderly workers' knowledge to implement more effective training and safety practices.

"I saw an example in the automotive parts manufacturing industry, where there were a number of complaints among employees having lift problems related to a particular operation," he recalls. "I talked to one of the older employees on the line who didn't have any problems, and found that he was holding the pneumatic wrench with a different grip than you might normally expect to hold it."

"I've seen similar things in metal industries. There's a lot of knowledge and experience that the older workers in a company possess that isn't necessarily being captured in the formal training program. Those best practices need to be captured and shared with the rest of the organization."

As Szlapetis points out, older workers tend to compensate for their waning physical capacities by developing alternative methods of completing tasks that are equally efficient and require less strain. They are also more likely to guide and instruct younger workers, thereby improving the latter's quality of work.

For that reason, Szlapetis thinks it's important that organizations weigh the value of their elderly workers' contributions before deciding on how to best accommodate them.

"In terms of accommodations, a company can choose to invest in legal advice to fight that kind of claim, or they can invest in improvements in the workplace," he offers. "That's where I think ergonomics provides a really good fit in terms of addressing these issues."

Should an organization see the value in keeping elderly workers on board for the sake of their experience and familiarity with processes, Ashurst says there are some fundamentally important considerations that should factor into their accommodations.

"There are different physical challenges that are present," she notes. "There are numerous reports that indicate that older workers have fewer accidents, but if they incur injury, they tend to be more severe and take longer to recover from. Typically, they're at a higher risk of musculoskeletal disorders like back injuries and shoulder injuries, etc."

Ashurst recommends conducting safety job analyses aimed at decreasing the physical strain associated with the role.

"As you get older, your muscular strength and range of motion decreases in the body," she adds, "so it becomes harder to lift things and move things. Some of the solutions we recommend would be conducting a very thorough job safety analysis and workstation design review, so making sure the job is safe, identifying any hazardous steps and trying to minimize the risk of the job. You want to look at the layout and make sure that things are efficient and easy to access."

In addition to making necessary equipment and tools easily and readily available, Ashurst also points to the ergonomics of posture and balance as important aspects of accommodating elderly workers.

"As we get older, posture and balance start to deteriorate, as well," she says, "and regulating our balance becomes increasingly difficult. If you have any work that requires a lot of walking or carrying on uneven or slippery surfaces, it becomes harder for the body to carry itself. So you want to make sure that there is good footwear being worn and that the floor surface is suitable."

These considerations may be minor, but they can go a long way towards ensuring the comfort and success of elderly workers in the workforce. In the end, it's often a small price to pay for the expertise and guidance they can bring to younger workers, and it's a route that Ashurst feels is ultimately the most beneficial for an organization when it comes to accommodating elderly workers in their roles.

Besides, as she points out, elderly workers aren't the only ones who benefit from simplifying processes and conducting ergonomic evaluations of the workplace.

"All of these solutions are really good for any age group. They're not just for an aging workplace. All workers can benefit from these solutions."