Safety and the Aging Workforce

Our working population is getting older. Since 2001, the proportion of workers over the age of 55 has spiked, and seems to still be on the rise. According to some projections, by 2021 nearly one-quarter of the working population may be 55 or older (compared to 10% in 2001 and 17% in 2009). 1

A few factors are contributing to this change. Most significantly, baby boomers are nearing the traditional age of retirement, and many are choosing to retire later in life for financial reasons. 1 By proportion, workers over 55 are most commonly found in the industries of agriculture, forestry, resource extraction, utilities, construction, and manufacturing, most of which are safety-sensitive industries. 3

Like any demographic trend, the aging workforce will be accompanied by a range of challenges and benefits. Here’s how you can manage both effectively.


Dispelling the Myths

When considering this issue, avoid subscribing to negative stereotypes about the older generation (e.g.: that they are slower, more accident prone, or are ‘just coasting to retirement,’ all of which have proven to be statistically untrue 3). In fact, an older workforce has several advantages. For example, older workers are generally more loyal to their company, and tend to bring superior skillsets that have been honed over many years of experience. Older workers also cause fewer accidents and sustain fewer injuries at work. This may be because they are more experienced and also because they are consistently better at adhering to safety standards than their younger coworkers. 3


Safety Concerns with an Aging Workforce

Although there are many advantages to having an older workforce, you should also recognize the associated safety risks. Workers over 55 face several safety concerns particular to their demographic, including…

  • Accident recovery. Although it’s true that older workers experience fewer injuries at work, the injuries they do sustain tend to be more serious and require greater recovery time. Furthermore, a 60-year-old may take up to three times longer than a 20-year-old to recover from the same injury. 2
  • Chronic health conditions. Older workers are at a significantly higher risk for certain chronic health conditions that may result in lost time at work. High blood pressure and difficulties with the circulatory and pulmonary systems (including heart and lung conditions) are all prevalent in individuals over 55. 4
  • Reduced muscle strength. Our muscles naturally lose some strength as we age. This might result in reduced capacity at work – for example, poorer grip strength. However, just because a person’s maximum strength has decreased does not necessarily mean that their job performance will be affected. After all, most workers do not normally use their maximum muscle strength in day-to-day work. 3
  • Workplace musculoskeletal disorders. Injuries sustained from repetitive motion are more likely to occur in older workers, who have had more time to develop them. 3
  • Vision and hearing. Our vision and hearing naturally decline as we age. We may become near- or farsighted, or experience a decline in visual acuity (sharpness), peripheral vision, and depth perception. Auditory capacity may also decline with age, especially among workers in occupations where continuous or loud noises pose a hazard. Reduced vision and hearing can be dangerous in certain safety-sensitive positions.


Managing an Aging Workforce

In light of these challenges to safety, measures should be in place to mitigate the risks. Have your workers undergo testing to monitor their heart and lung health. Evaluate your workers’ grip strength and musculoskeletal capacity regularly, and make sure their vision and hearing abilities meet the job requirements. Ensure workers are accommodated according to their abilities and never pushed past their physical limits. Checking in with your workers, performing regular tests, and making adjustments to your workflow can go a long way toward maximizing safety at work.


Sources

1 Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (2017). Aging workers. OSH Answers. Retrieved February 9, 2017 from https://www.ccohs.ca/oshanswers/psychosocial/aging_workers.html 

2 Caulfield, P. (2017, January 24). Aging Canadian workforce means changes to occupational health and safety programs. Journal of Commerce. Retrieved February 9, 2017 from http://journalofcommerce.com/Labour/News/2017/1/Aging-Canadian-workforce-means-changes-to-occupational-health-and-safety-programs-1021278W/

3 Government of Alberta (March 2016). A guide to managing the aging workforce [Online Resource]. Retrieved February 9, 2017 from https://www.albertacanada.com/AgingWorkforce2016_Web.pdf 

4 National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (2015). Productive aging and work. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved February 9, 2017 from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/productiveaging/safetyandhealth.html