Accommodating an aging workforce

An ergonomics improvement process and training will benefit employees old and young
Wednesday, August 6, 2014
By Sarah Snable

By 2021, it is anticipated that one out of every four employees will be over the age of 55. In fact, in today’s workforce, approximately one in four (24 per cent) persons aged 65 to 70 is still working, up from 11 per cent in 2000. These rising statistics are due in large part to the demographic bulge known as the baby boomer generation entering its golden years. As well, people are generally living longer, thus the number of people in older age groups is increasing.

Workers are staying in the workforce for longer periods of time for several reasons, including increased longevity and function as they age; individual economic needs; job satisfaction and the sense of productivity and creativity offered by work; need for social contact and stimulation; and maintenance of self-esteem and self-confidence.

Interestingly, more than 80 per cent of companies recognize the dynamics of aging demographics, yet less than half of those same companies are proactively planning for them. Losing the expertise of long-term workers could be a loss of highly valuable resources. In today’s business environment, it is essential for companies to engage their aging workers in jobs that promote healthy, safe and productive work performance.

To begin, it is important to address some of the common physical effects of aging. The more these changes are understood, the better the aging workforce can be accommodated. Some examples include:

  • Muscle strength and endurance decreases (maximum physical strength is reached between the ages of 20 and 30, gradually declining until ages 40 to 50 and more quickly thereafter);
  • Range of motion and reach distance decreases;
  • Visual acuity decreases; changes to depth perception and field of view;
  • Reduced hearing, especially related to higher frequency sounds;
  • Posture and balance changes (potential increase in incidences of slips, trips and falls);
  • Cardiovascular and respiratory function decline.

When considering how to address the needs of an aging workforce, it is imperative to match job demands to worker capabilities. This prevents injuries, illnesses and mistakes, and improves overall worker health and business performance.

Developing a comprehensive strategy will minimize injury risk and promote safe and productive work performance. This strategy should include an ergonomics improvement process and an education/training program.

Ergonomics improvement process

First, identify risk factors contributing to injury (e.g. high force, fixed or awkward postures, repetition or duration of exposure, contact stress, and vibration). Next, conduct a risk assessment, collecting data to determine root causes of hazards. Lastly, choose and implement controls (e.g. modification to tools, equipment, work or workplace, work method training, change to work organization, job rotation). A properly implemented ergonomic intervention or control should address one (or more) of the hazards present in a job or task, for example, reduce force, repetition, exposure time and/or improve posture/position.

Ergonomic controls do not need to be costly or elaborate projects. Many hazards can be addressed with a variety of simple and cost-effective solutions, including: proper storage heights; improved layout to keep work within the “handshake zone”; adjustable and supportive seating; increased light levels (low glare, high quality); use of contrasting colours and minimization of irrelevant info on monitors and written materials; handrails along travel routes; and slip resistant walking surfaces.

Education and training programs

Educate employees on ergonomics, addressing types of injuries associated with ergonomic hazards, early reporting of discomfort, how to prevent injuries, etc. Also train employees on the controls that have been implemented, as the controls will only be effective if they are actually used, and used properly. Workplace wellness programs, such as lifestyle coaching, fitness challenges, screening clinics, health-risk assessments and education sessions, can promote a healthy and safe work environment too.

Assessing and designing workstations and tasks using ergonomic principles has excellent cost-benefit potential. Employers who proactively accommodate their workforce, by promoting and supporting the work ability of employees as they age, may see improvements in safety, productivity, competitiveness and sustainable business practices.

Not only will a comprehensive ergonomics program assist older workers with the physical elements of their job, but it will also prevent injuries to younger workers by reducing their cumulative exposure to the identified hazards. Ergonomic interventions designed with the goal of accommodating an aging workforce should improve the work environment for all employees — a true best-case scenario.

Sarah Snable is a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE), Registered Kinesiologist (R.Kin.) and co-founder of PROergonomics, based in Barrie, ON. She can be reached at