Create a health and safety program that considers older workers. Here’s how.

Older workers bring expertise, emotional maturity, critical judgement, and years of work experience and industry knowledge.
Pamela Patry
Occupational health and safety consultant, Workplace Safety & Prevention Services
Caucasian woman Pamela Patry smiles at the camera
Older Worker Smiling

The Nepean Sports Complex in Ottawa recently made the national news after hiring two older workers – one age 64 and the other age 80 – as lifeguards, noting they bring impeccable credentials, long experience, and a strong work ethic to the job. 

Many workplaces turned to older workers and retired employees to fill critical gaps during the pandemic and with ongoing labour shortages, we’re seeing the trend continue. Older workers bring expertise, emotional maturity, critical judgement, loyalty, and of course, priceless years of work experience and industry knowledge.

So why aren’t we hiring and retaining older workers more often? Society has long made assumptions about people’s ability to work into their older years, including questioning their mental sharpness and physical capabilities.

Some of those assumptions were busted during the pandemic. We saw older workers not only adopt, but also adapt to, technology – proving that the stereotype of older people fearing technology is untrue.

Let’s bust this myth further and dive into what really happens to our abilities as we age.

How aging affects us

The process of aging can affect:

  • Balance and stability – Biological factors increase the risk of falls.
  • Musculoskeletal system – Musculoskeletal injuries (MSDs) often develop over time, with long-tenured staff exposed to hazards longer.
  • Cardiovascular and respiratory systems – Breathing capacity decreases as we age, affecting our ability to do extended physical labour and tolerate very hot and very cold temperatures.
  • Sleep – Changes to our circadian rhythm affect the length and quality of sleep, increasing the risk of fatigue, especially among shift workers.
  • Cognitive ability – Older workers take more time to think through problems and learn new skills.

Tips for supporting older workers

So how can workplaces harness and hold on to the talents of older workers while managing these changes?

The goal for employers is to create strong health and safety programs that set everyone up for success. Keeping older workers safe also requires employers and supervisors to be mindful, creative, and flexible. Here are 8 tips.

  1. Have a robust slip, trips, and falls prevention program. Slips, trips, and falls are the number one cause of lost-time injuries for older workers. By eliminating fall hazards, we’re not only reducing the risk of injury for older workers, but for everyone. Consider the floor surface – wet, snowy, and cluttered floors increase the risk of falls. 
  1. Help older workers maintain their balance. Provide stools or leaning surfaces, as well as carts for manual materials handling. This eliminates the need for the worker to carry heavy items, which may affect their centre of gravity and increase the likelihood of a fall.
  1. Invest in ergonomics. Workstations and job tasks need to match the needs of every individual worker. Provide workstation assessments, adaptable tools, and adjustable equipment to prevent MSDs from occurring.
  1. Reduce the size of loads for older workers and provide flexible working hours. An 8-hour shift or lifting heavy objects may be difficult for older workers or workers who may have cardiovascular diseases.  However, these workers may be able to work four or six-hour shifts, or lift lighter loads. 
  1. Make sure your heat stress program is effective and includes extra accommodations for older workers. Older bodies find it increasingly difficult to manage in the heat. Solutions include shorter shifts, more indoor work cycles, as well as more frequent and longer cooling breaks.
  1. If fatigue is an issue, talk to the worker about what schedule works best for them. Different people will be at their best at different times of day.
  1. Work with a sleep specialist to determine a shift work schedule for older workers. Shift work is hard for everyone. Fast changes in shifts increase the risk of fatigue and fatigue-related incidents. Look to provide support for all shifts – morning, afternoon, and evening shifts – not just night shift change overs. 
  1. Provide training for older workers that consider changes in cognitive ability. Older workers may have difficulty doing tasks quickly or doing many tasks at one time. Practical training that builds on what they already know, and providing opportunities to practice will ensure they get up to speed.

Have health and safety questions? Please contact Denise Lam, WSPS Account Manager, Small Business at [email protected]. 

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