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Older workers experiencing fewer, but more severe, accidents: CCOHS

By Amanda Silliker

Health and safety managers need to put solutions in place to keep their aging workforce safe on the job, delegates heard at the Canadian Society of Safety Engineering’s annual conference on Tuesday.

Since 2001, the labour force participation rate of individuals in Canada aged 65 and over has more than doubled, rising from 5.9 per cent to 13.2 per cent in 2013, according to Employment Services and Development Canada. There are many possible explanations for this, including the fact that baby boomers are more highly educated, they are enjoying their jobs, they may need to work longer to save for retirement (with the decline of pension plans) and they are in good health for longer, said Jan Chappel, senior technical specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton, who presented the topic at the Vancouver conference

“Work in general has become a lot less physically demanding than it was so you can keep going to work if you are enjoying it and liking it and you still feel productive,” she said. “In general, working life has increased about three years for everybody since 1997.”

Young workers tend to have more traumatic injuries (burns, cuts, punctures) and they are more likely to be struck by a falling object or caught in equipment  — those “quick reaction things” that go wrong, said Chappel.

Older workers, on the other hand, tend to have more overexertion issues, such as back strain, repetitive injuries and sprains and strains.

“They are severe accidents but they occur less frequently,” said Chappel. “In that case, the recovery is longer as well.”

Older workers also suffer from the effect of “accumulation over time,” which comes into play for occupational diseases.

Aging brings with it many physical changes that health and safety professionals need to take it consideration. For example, individuals lose 15 per cent to 20 per cent of their strength from age 20 to 60.

“Be aware as people age, they may be working closer to the maximum than they were before,” said Chappel. “And it also makes things like a slip or trip more serious because they can’t catch themselves; they don’t have the body strength to stop falling down.”

As a solution, safety professionals can look at job and work station design as well as implementing mechanical assists.

Aging also affects sleep, decreasing the length and quality. This means safety managers may need to allow for more time between extended shifts or have on-site accommodations. Fatigue awareness and providing access to good food can also help.

It is also harder to maintain a constant body temperature as individuals age, so good work practices and rest schedules should be in place, said Chappel.

Vision also decreases with age: visual acuity (preciseness), depth perception, light transmission and peripheral vision all diminish.

“You don’t see that tractor coming at you from the side,” said Chappel, noting there may be ways aging workers can compensate for this, such as turning their heads more.

To address this, employers should have good benefits so workers can get proper glasses (such as reading glasses versus computer glasses) and safety managers can make sure there is sufficient contrast on their posters and visual documents.

Older workers have difficulty with their hearing as well. They are not able to hear high frequencies and they have difficulty picking out one voice in a noisy room.

“The health and safety implications are maybe people won’t hear that signal — the evacuation signal, the alarm bell,” said Chappel.

As a solution, warnings should be a combination of light and sound. Employers also must have good hearing conservation programs in place and screening for workers.

At her session, Chappel debunked the myth that older workers are less productive. She cited studies that found there is no relationship between age and productivity.

“Older workers may work a little slower and make decisions maybe a little less quickly, but decisions tend to be more accurate and the decision more correct in the end,” said Chappel. “Maybe it’s not a bad thing to take that pause. It’s a nice trade-off there.”

When it comes to training older workers, they respond best when they can base new information on what they already know and relate it to past experience.

“Sometimes that extra flash and excitement and videos and all that kind of stuff may not be appropriate for some older workers. Relating it to what they know and say what’s new and what’s old is a better approach,” said Chappel.

Older workers may learn a little slower, so it’s important to allow time for practice. But once they have mastered the task, there’s no difference in performance, she added.

Aging does come with a variety of benefits as well. For example, strategic thinking, wisdom, holistic perception and ability to deliberate all get better with age.

Health and safety managers can benefit from having older workers on staff because they know how to avoid certain risks and are more likely to speak up and point out patterns that can lead to injuries, said Chappel. Older workers also tend to have lower turnover, positive work values, high level of commitment and dedication, tremendous knowledge and less need for supervision.

“It’s worth the long haul,” Chappel said.

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