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.
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."
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."
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Published in HR Stories