by Niamh Pentony, Ergonomist and Director at Boyne Ergonomics
The workforce population is aging, and employers are increasingly faced with the challenge of providing a safe and healthy work environment for employees of all ages. People are working longer for a number of reasons, including financial reasons delaying retirement, better health as they age, talent shortages and a sense of purpose and enjoyment of the social aspect of employment. As older workers bring valuable skills and experience to the table, it becomes crucial to address their unique health and safety needs.
In this article, I will discuss essential considerations for employers and employees to ensure workplace health and safety for the aging workforce. It should be noted that these are general recommendations, as the abilities and task demands vary greatly based on the person and role.
Understanding the Aging Workforce
The first step in promoting workplace health and safety is to gain a better understanding of the aging workforce. This demographic includes individuals aged 55 and older, who often experience physical and cognitive changes that can impact their ability to perform certain tasks.
Common age-related issues include reduced strength and flexibility, declining vision and hearing, slower reaction times, and increased susceptibility to chronic conditions.
The impact that these changes will have on an employee’s ability to safely perform their tasks will vary based on individual employee factors and the tasks they are required to complete.
Ergonomics and Workplace Design
One of the primary ways to support the aging workforce is through ergonomic workplace design. Remember, ergonomics is the science of fitting the task, workplace and equipment to the users.
Consider the following factors when reviewing the work areas and tasks:
- Adjustable furniture:
- Provide adjustable desks, chairs, and monitors to accommodate varying heights and physical abilities. Ensure that additional supplementary equipment, such as footrests and foam back supports etc are available to employees as required.
- Risk assessments:
- Conduct annual ergonomic risk assessments of employees with known musculoskeletal or underlying health conditions. Some employers conduct annual over 65s medicals to ensure continued fitness for role. However, a rigid ergonomics programme will ensure that employees under 65 experiencing issues with be identified and catered for.
- Proper lighting:
- Ensure well-lit workspaces to aid vision and reduce eyestrain. Ensure additional lighting is available as required.
- Eliminating hazards:
- Regularly assess the workplace for potential hazards, such as slippery floors or obstructed pathways, and promptly address them. This should be an ongoing process. However, as slips and falls among the older workforce can potentially cause more significant injuries, resulting in longer periods out of work or on restricted duties, it is an important consideration in all work areas.
- Comfortable break areas:
- Create designated areas where employees can rest and recharge during breaks to reduce fatigue.
Training and Education
Empowering employees with relevant knowledge is crucial for promoting workplace safety. Consider the following training initiatives:
- Health and safety awareness:
- Conduct regular training sessions on workplace hazards, emergency procedures, and preventive measures. This will allow these topics to remain fresh in the employee mind while alerting them to any changes to procedures.
- Task-specific training:
- Provide specialized training to older employees regarding the safe operation of equipment or machinery. This should be conducted annually on current equipment, as well as following the installation of new equipment.
- Wellness programs:
- Encourage healthy habits and offer wellness programs that address physical fitness, mental health, nutrition, and stress management.
To support the unique needs of the aging workforce, employers should consider implementing reasonable workplace accommodations, such as:
- Flexible work schedules:
- Offer flexible hours, work from home or part-time options to allow older employees to manage their energy levels effectively. This will allow older employees that may not have the capacity to work full-time remain part of the workforce or allow them to manage carer responsibilities or medical appointments without impacting their role.
- Job rotation:
- Facilitate job rotation or task-sharing to minimize repetitive motions and reduce the risk of overexertion.
- Assistive devices:
- Provide appropriate assistive devices, such as handrails, magnifiers, or ergonomic tools, to enhance safety and productivity.
- Health insurance and wellness benefits:
- Ensure comprehensive health insurance coverage and wellness benefits that address the needs of older employees.
Health Promotion and Support
Encourage a culture of health and well-being by implementing the following initiatives:
- Regular health screenings:
- Encourage employees to undergo regular health check-ups to detect and address any potential health issues early on.
- Mental health support:
- Promote mental well-being by providing access to counseling services or employee assistance programs.
- Healthy lifestyle programs:
- Organize educational workshops or seminars that focus on healthy eating, exercise, stress reduction, and work-life balance.
Creating a workplace environment that prioritizes the health and safety of the aging workforce is not only essential for employee well-being but also for maintaining productivity and retention.
By understanding the unique needs of older employees, implementing ergonomic design principles, providing appropriate training, and offering workplace accommodations, employers can create a safe and supportive environment that benefits both the organization and its valuable employees.
Embracing these strategies fosters an inclusive workplace culture that respects and appreciates the diverse strengths and experiences of the aging workforce.
About the author
Niamh has been working in the area of workplace ergonomics since 2009, specialising in assessing and adapting workstations to reduce pain and discomfort, having completed a Masters in Applied Ergonomics from the University of Nottingham.
In June 2019 Niamh launched Boyne Ergonomics, an independent ergonomics consultancy company that specialises in virtual and onsite DSE Risk Assessments and workplace Ergonomic Risk Assessments. Niamh works with employers in corporate, industrial and educational settings to ensure their employees can work safely and efficiently, whether it is an employee returning from absence, an employee reporting pain at work, an employee with additional needs or a general preventative review of current workstations.
Since April 2020, Niamh has been working with employers in to ensure their home-based employees have the appropriate education, equipment and set-up to reduce their risk of musculoskeletal injury, eye strain and stress.
Niamh is a member of the Irish Human Factors & Ergonomics Society and the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors.