Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Ergonomic Considerations for Older Workers

The idea of fitting the job to the worker is not new...but the increasing numbers of older workers in the workforce requires a fresh look at workplace standards and design.

Older workers may have very different needs from their younger counterparts. Many tables that record body measurements and ratios are based on military populations and may not be representative of the working population in general or of a particular worksite with many older workers.

What sort of considerations should one make for older workers? In a recent presentation J.M. Haight offered the following advice:

Consider older workers limitation in workspace and task design:
· Improve illumination
· Reduce heavy lifts and elevated work
· Design smooth solid flooring
· Remove control panel and computer screen clutter
· Reduce noise levels
· Focus on error reduction tools such as three way communication
· Additional time spacing between task steps
· Increase decision making time
· Reduce necessary reaction time
· Understand accommodations being made
· Educate, Educate, Educate

The Australian Public Safety Commission produced a similar
checklist of strategies and activities for an aging workforce
(Australian Public Service Commission, 2003):

Improve work task design
· Promote employees’ control over their work depending on agency needs and employee preferences
· Reduce physical loads
· Ensure good visibility of task-related information
· Improve posture
· Set reasonable work rate standards, production targets or workloads

Improve job design and work organization
· Avoid monotony, short cycle times
· Improve work scheduling
· Allow flexibility in taking rest breaks
· Allow individuals time to adapt to new tasks
· Support flexible employment conditions

Improve the physical work environment
· Minimise glare
· Ensure good lighting levels
· Minimise noise levels
· Eliminate hazards that may cause slips, trips and falls
· Make allowances for working in heat and encourage sun-safe behaviour

Support and improve people’s performance capacities
· Develop best practice performance standards
· Improve training programs
· Develop and maintain support systems
· Improve employee morale and expertise

Interestingly, this resource follows each strategy with specific recommended activities and provides a small bibliographic reference section to support each recommendation.

Zurich, another large insurer, recently published an even more elaborate listing of practical steps (Zurich Services Corporation, 2008). The listing includes engineering and administrative solutions for physical, physiological and psychosocial changes.

With same level falls (slips, trips and falls) identified as a major source for injuries in older workers, the slips, trips and fall prevention program evaluated by Bell et al. (Bell, J. L., Collins, J. W., Wolf, L., Grnqvist, R., Chiou, S., Chang, W.-R., et al. Evaluation of a comprehensive slip, trip and fall prevention programme for hospital employees. Ergonomics , 51 (12), 1906-1925) is a good resource for ergonomic strategies that have collectively been validated in a healthcare setting. The main intervention strategy elements are:

· Keep floors clean and dry
· Prevent entry into areas that are contaminated
· Use slip-resistant shoes
· Keep walkways clear of objects and reduce clutter
· Provide adequate lighting in all work areas including outdoor stairwells and parking garages
· Secure loose cords, wires and tubing
· Eliminate outdoor surface irregularities
· Eliminate indoor surface irregularities
· Check stairs
· General awareness campaign

There are other resources like Designing for Older Adults: Principles and Creative Human Factors Approaches is one such reference (Fisk, Rogers, Charness, Czaja, & Sharit, 2009). Another is “Extra-ordinary” Ergonomics: How to accommodate small and big persons, the disabled and elderly, expectant mothers and children (Kroemer, 2006) where Chapter 6 is specifically about designing for aging.

These general guidelines and resources are a start. For any particular jobsite, safely fitting the actual job tasks to the the workers who actually perform them deserves consideration.

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