Monday, October 24, 2016

What do changing demographics mean for workplace health and safety?

If you knew your workforce was going to experience changing risks, increased exposure, longer recoveries from injury and greater effects associated with co-morbidities, you would act!  The fact is, our workforce is changing and few organizations are even aware of the change let alone the consequences.   

[This post contains slides and content arising from my presentation to the Occupational and Environmental Medicine Association of Canada (OEMAC) Scientific Conference  September 2016].

The aging population is not just a North American problem.  The median age of the population in most industrialized countries is projected to rise dramatically.  I adapted the following Pew Institute graphic to include Canada and Australia but its message is clear:  over the next few decades, the median population age of many of the most important economies in the world is going to rise. 

For Canada, the US and Australia, this shift to an older population will not be limited to the median age.  Populations of older people are growing while birth rates are low or falling and immigration levels stagnant.  Because demographics drives the demand for goods and services and provides the supply of workers, changing demographic patterns are altering the character and needs of the population, the labour force, the economy and more.   

Demographic change drives both the supply of potential workers and demand for goods and services.   The Canadian population, for example, is growing at about 1% per year overall.  The working age population (18-64) is growing at about the same rate but the oldest and youngest segments of the population have very different profiles.  In the last decade, the population over the age of 65 has risen by more than a third and is nearly 50% larger than it was in 2001.  On the other hand, the population ages 0 to 17 years of age has actually declined over the same time frame. 

Canada’s population projections all point to a continuing trend toward an older population.   The Canadian population will rise by a little more than 5 million in the next thirty years but the increase in the population over age 65 will account for nearly 90% of that growth. 

Already we are seeing skill shortages in several sectors and regions related to this demographic change.  I mentioned the population over the age of 65 has risen by about 50% since 2001 but the numbers continuing to work full time have risen by 350% over the same time.  Part-time work for those over age 65 has also risen by about the same percentage.  Full and part-time work for those over 70 has also risen by more than 250%. 

This trend is also evident in Australia:
"The majority of Australians intend to retire between 65-69 years, but the results show that now over a quarter of males 45 years and over plan to work past 70 years.”  [Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australians intend to work longer than ever before, Media Release 40/216, 29 March 2016]

The trend toward more workers being engaged in full time work beyond age 65 is particularly evident in the US data.  I recently extended published US data to capture more recent developments that show full time employment dominates among those working beyond age 65.

We are not only seeing an increasing number of older workers in the economy, but the distribution of even the category of older workers in some industries is trending toward the upper age limits of recorded data.  For example,  I used Canadian Institute for Health Information CIHI data on registered nurses and nurse practitioners (RNs and NPs) as  an example and found that the distribution of those aged 70 and older has double in the last decade. 

By about 2030 under most projections, the category of persons aged 80 and older will outnumber any other 5 year age group in our population.  This has implications for the demand on care services, healthcare, housing, transportation and many other aspects.  One example of this trend is the dramatic rise in Licensed Practical Nurses (LPNs), a profession highly associated with care for the elderly and disabled.  In the last decade, the number of LPNs has risen with the older population while the supply of RNs and NPs has tracked closer to the growth rate of the population aged 18 to 64. 

Of course, people who decide to go into nursing or healthcare of any sort are needed but that also means they are unavailable to become electricians, truck drivers, educators, researchers, programmers and construction workers—occupations that are also necessary to the growth and maintenance of our economy.  The problem of limited supply of youth and a falling birth rate means these roles are going to have to be filled by others.  We are already seeing a dramatic rise in the working population over age 65 but this, too, has its implications. 

Working longer means greater exposure to hazards, greater risk of injury and complications due to comorbidities and conditions related to normal ageing.  How prepared are employers and safety professionals to address these changes? Are workers adequately aware of the risks?  Are safety professionals and employers aware of changing risk profiles of older workers?  Are there appropriate ergonomic tables to provide guidance on strength and repletion limits for older workers?  Do workers’ compensation laws adequately address work careers that may extend into their seventies, eighties and beyond?  Are health and safety systems capable of addressing risks associated with older age groups not previously prevalent in your workplace?

There is a lot of evidence that work is good for your health and wellbeing.  That applies to older individuals where work can provide income security, mental stimulation, exercise, socialization, and opportunities to “give back” or do something meaningful and productive with one’s time.  Moreover, many workers approaching retirement age today have skills, knowledge and experience that are just not available in the labour market.  These factors and the demographic changes noted above mean we are seeing more older workers in the workplace—a trend that will continue for more than another decade. 

It is not too late to act.  Understanding the changes is the first step… and perhaps a self-serving one:  chances are, if you are working today, you will be working to an older age than your parents or grandparents.