Thursday, December 10, 2009

Ergonomics and Demographics

Last week I completed a graduate course on Ergonomics (OCCH 505b offered through the School of Environmental Health at the University of British Columbia). The class consisted of about a dozen students, mostly working towards a Master of Science degree in Occupational and Environmental Hygiene. The instructor was a professional ergonomist with a great background in academic, regulatory and private practice areas. The content and discussions were a great way to spend three hours every Monday evening over the last three months.

The course content covered the range of topics you might expect and a few that might not immediately jump to mind. One area we discussed was how the changing demographics of society and the labour force will require ergonomic considerations for older workers.

Demographic changes are clearly having an impact in the labour force. The average age of workers in the labour force is rising. More people are deciding to participate in the labour force well beyond the age of 65. In the US, most of this population is opting for full time work—a clear shift from the trends we saw only a decade ago. Despite these trends, there was surprisingly little research-validated data on specific ergonomic recommendations for the older workforce.

There is no standard definition of what we mean by older workers. In some research, particularly in manufacturing and construction, age 40 or 45 is used to differentiate the older worker population. In other literature, workers over the age of 55, 64, or 67 may be used to define the older population.

The research lists changes that occur to our body and mind as we age. Not everyone ages at the same rate but many common changes are important to consider when designing or fitting the job to the worker:

  • · stiffness Increases
    · range of motion and flexibility decrease
    · Hearing declines particularly at upper frequencies
    · metabolism slows and weight gain often occurs
    · tire more easily and take longer to recover
    · eye movements may become impaired
    · colour perception may change
    · more light may be required for fine work tasks
    · floaters and veils can appear and persist in the field of vision

Not everything about aging is bad. Some things improve with age. These include verbal and general knowledge. Age is associated with increased happiness. A recent study found a positive association between age and safety perception. Older workers have the best perceptions on safety, highest job satisfaction levels, greatest compliance with safety procedures and recorded the lowest work-related accident/injury rates.

Some researchers and insurers are beginning to provide important information for the protection older workers. I’ll provide some resources in my next post

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