Health and safety for older workers
As the Australian population ‘ages’ due to longer life expectancy and a low fertility, an older workforce will become the norm across the country. Many people are choosing or need to work until much later ages than they have in the past.
Older workers offer considerable benefits in the workplace. Looking for a dedicated, mature, punctual, honest, organised, detail-oriented, focused and attentive group of employees? Then look no further.
As an work health and safety professional, you should be aware than an older workforce has different requirements when it comes to WHS. Older employees are more susceptible to certain kinds of injuries and illnesses, so ideally, in your role as the workplace health and safety officer, you’ll be able to adjust WHS practices so you too can reap the rewards of employing older workers.
Age related changes that affect work health and safety
Ageing isn’t a consistent process and many factors, such as previous types of work, fitness, general health and lifestyle choices all affect how a person ages. As a result, ‘older’ workers can be physically fit and ready to work, while ‘young’ workers demonstrate a decline in health commonly associated with age. What we’re trying to say is each person needs to be evaluated on their own merits, not their age!
There are some ageing norms that can be used as general rules when it comes to implementing work health and safety policies.
- As people age, they normally experience reductions in muscular strength which can reduce a persons’ capacity to perform physical work (decline does vary greatly depending on physical condition and can be significantly reduced if older workers have stayed fit).
- Older people typically experience reduced elasticity in body tissues, contributing to a decreased range of movement which can affect work that requires employees to adopt extremes of postures.
- Changes in hearing, vision and thought processing can lead to a decline in information processing capacity. This isn’t always true, or reductions can be balanced out by increases in expertise, experience and decision making ability.
- As we age our bodies’ ability to regulate body temperature decreases, so older workers may find it more difficult or need more PPE to work in extreme hot or cold temperatures.
Practical considerations for WHS for ageing employees
Workers’ compensation statistics indicate that the most common causes of injury among older workers include:
- Fractures, crushing injuries, contusions and disorders of the spinal vertebrae and other muscles, tendons or soft tissue;
- Sprains and strains, indicating muscular stress is a common problem;
- Falls, slips and trips.
What can you do as a work health and safety officer?
Employers still need to provide a sufficient duty of care for older workers, which may involve adapting work practices to suit the needs of an ageing workforce.
You can be proactive in WHS by matching the abilities and skillset of each individual worker to the jobs and tasks at hand.
You can also employ systems such as:
- Identifying or re-evaluating workplace hazards or risks from the perspective of older employees at your organisation;
- Surveying employees to discover problems they’ve identified, helping you develop an awareness of age-related health and safety factors;
- Using survey results for finding and control hazards for ageing employees, and for developing a range of WHS strategies;
- Conducting pre-placement discussions with employees to evaluate their needs and abilities;
- Continuously communicating and consulting with workers about their needs and responsibilities;
- Liaising with other health and safety officers to find the best systems and maintain consistent approaches and standards;
- Continuously monitoring and reviewing workplace practices
- Seeking medical advice where you don’t have the knowledge to assess more complicated health issues;
Key WHS hazard factors and risks for older workers
Age-related hazard factors:
- Job-person fit (eg. Being placed in an inappropriate role, or role becoming unsuitable after age-related changes);
- Rest breaks;
- Task demands (eg. heavy lifting, manual handling);
- Variation of tasks;
- Repetition of tasks.
- Design of work station;
- Uneven or slippery surfaces (eg. stairs, rough floors);
WHS control measures for an ageing workforce
Matching the person to the task
The capabilities of each individual should be as closely aligned to the demands of the job wherever possible.
Arrange work tasks after considering all hazard factors, ensuring that individuals still have sufficient control over their work so they can make decisions about how to tackle and complete tasks.
Individuals should also be given flexibility, where possible, to vary the timing of their own rest breaks to meet their own needs. Rest breaks can help compensate for differences in physical performance capacity.
Work should be scheduled to reduce risk factors. For example older workers can experience greater difficulties in coping with tiring shift work. Redesigning shifts can reduce employee fatigue levels and minimise associated risks and problems.
Workloads and work intensity should be constantly monitored. Work that involves a high work rate for extended periods is often stressful and can lead to musculoskeletal disorders. Workloads should be set with an understanding of how long it takes to achieve the desired quality, not just the quantity of work output needed. You also shouldn’t confuse workload with task complexity and make tasks easier – people can be more prone to injury when doing monotonous or very easy tasks.
People of all ages need time to adapt to changing requirements. When making changes to tasks, equipment, or other work factors, allow workers time to change and adapt. Strength and fitness takes time to develop no matter what age the employee, so performance demands should be set lower while workers are learning and adapting to new work requirements.
Reducing physical demands
Older employees can still safely perform manual handling tasks; however changes may need to be made to achieve a safe system of work. The weight and size of objects should be reduced where possible, distance between the object and the person lifting should be reduced and mechanical lifting equipment should be used where practical.
Changing the physical work environment
Workplaces need to be rethought and redesigned. Changes can include things like increasing light levels, reducing glare, reducing noise levels, eliminating hazards that cause slips, trips and falls, reducing exposure to extreme temperatures by decreasing exposure or providing PPE, increasing visibility of task related objects or information. Don’t overlook the dangers of Sitting: The Silent Office Killer (click to read more).
Postural demands can be reduced by changes to equipment and procedures. Employers can also choose to support flexible employment conditions such as job sharing and part-time work so older workers reduce their risk of injury.
You may also choose to promote health and lifestyle in your workplace – our article on Why You Should Shape Up Your Workplace explains the benefits in more detail, while How to Workout At Work offers ideas on how to achieve a fitter, healthier workforce.
Don’t overlook WHS for an older workforce
Older workers have a great deal to offer their employer. They do need support from workplace health and safety officers and other WHS professionals to ensure that work doesn’t cause injury or illness.
Change your thinking and start adapting your workplace environment and tasks to the needs of older Australians now and you’ll be in the best position to reap the benefits of this amazing resource now and into the future.
Information sourced from the WA Govt’s Department of Commerce guide to health and safety for older workers.
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