Aging workforce poses health, safety risks

As workforce greys, employers will need to adjust health and safety programs accordingly

It’s time to put a little cash into the prevention of injuries for older workers, according to industry experts.

“What we suggest is proactive measures for employers,” said Catherine Fuchs, a preventions consultant at Saskatchewan’s Workers’ Compensation Board. “They should have good ergonomics, they should consider things like lighting and stretching programs. These are very cost-effective means for reducing any injury claims cost for employers.”

Fuchs developed a presentation on addressing safety concerns in an aging workforce six years ago. She still gives the presentation a few times each year because the greying employment pool is top of mind for so many employers.

“Employers have to reduce the risk factor and, of course, they have to realize older workers are more prone to repetitive strain injuries,” she said.

That happens because bone density, muscle mass and strength decline as people age. Workplaces also have to consider possible changes in vision, hearing and fatigue as well, she said.

Looking critically at the work environment is key, said Ian Howcroft, vice-president of the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters, an organization based in Mississauga, Ont.

Businesses have to look at work stations to make sure they are safe for all workers. In some cases modifications might be needed for certain groups and one of the groups to consider is older workers, said Howcroft.

Ensuring the workplace is appropriate for all groups of employees includes checking lighting and railings, he said.

It’s also important to recognize time loss injuries have more to do with a worker’s level of activity and knowledge about nutrition wellness than just age, said Fuchs.

Talking to an aging worker about safety:Proceed with caution

When approaching a worker who can no longer perform duties he previously had, employers should proceed with caution, experts say.

“We suggest employers approach this cautiously because we don’t want any discrimination based on age,” said Fuchs.

Having a good workplace culture where health and safety issues are addressed and employees are included in part of the process is important so workers feel they can talk about OHS concerns, said Howcroft.

“I think you have to be very careful in how you approach these subjects. There’s human rights legislation — you don’t want to be seen as discriminating on the basis of age or the basis of disability,” he said.

If a worker recognizes his physical limitations and makes a request for accommodation to the employer, that needs to be addressed immediately, said Howcroft.

“You want to make sure the worker is not endangering themselves,” he said, which includes ensuring the right personal protective equipment is being used, there is the right assistance in the workplace and job hazards are alleviated by measures such as proper lifting techniques.”

Legally speaking: Age discrimination

Age discrimination in Ontario was brought to the forefront with the elimination of mandatory retirement in 2006, said Simon Heath, a lawyer with Keyser Mason Ball in Mississauga, Ont.

“What employers need to know is that you have to apply performance management to everyone equally and you have to have objective standards in place,” he said. “Based on effective performance management you can legitimately weed out poor performers and avoid allegations of discrimination.”

What can employers ask? Managers would be smart to stay away from inquiring about retirement plans, said Heath.

“Where I’ve seen a lot of human rights decisions, especially out of the Ontario human rights tribunal, are improper questions asked by managers of older workers,” he said. “Now what’s impermissible and often gets employers into hot water is asking older workers when they plan to retire and what their retirement plans are.”

What might seem an innocuous question about what an employee plans to do when they end their career, if followed by a termination, could raise an allegation by the employee that their age factored into the decision to terminate, said Heath.

Employers need to accommodate to the point of undue hardship, which is different for every employer, said Heath.

Establishing whether threshold for undue hardship has been met includes factors such as cost and whether health and safety is being threatened.

If an accommodation results in putting the employee and his coworkers at risk, then you might have met the threshold of undue hardship, said Heath.

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