Managing the safety of an ageing workforce
According to the Partnership for European Research in Occupational Health and Safety (PEROSH), 35 per cent of the European Union workforce is expected to be over 50 years old by 20251. Here Sean Clay, vice president and general manager, Honeywell Industrial Safety EMEA, offers advice on protecting an ageing workforce.
Older workers present employers with a range of age-related issues, for instance, deteriorating vision and hearing and reduced mobility and strength. When accidents happen, older workers are more likely to incur serious injuries, permanent disabilities or even death 2. Safety managers, therefore, need to have strategies in place to protect older workers.
Whilst safety or risk assumptions shouldn’t be made purely on age, risk assessments should consider work demands in relation to an individual’s functional capacities and health status. It is important to consider age-sensitive factors, including the physical demands of the work, for example any work carried out in hot or noisy conditions or the demands that repetitive twisting and turning movements can have. Other considerations could include:
Muscular strength and mobility:
Most jobs do not require a person to use their maximum strength or range of movement. As a result, older employees may be able to perform the same tasks as a younger worker without any problem, but they may be working closer to their maximum effort. Safety managers, therefore, should consider the impact of highly repetitive motions associated with certain manual handling tasks.
Posture and balance – safety footwear:
More loss-of-balance related accidents happen with age. Work that requires precise adjustments, strong muscular effort (including lifting and carrying) and repeated movement (perhaps done on a slippery or unstable surface) may be affected by poorer posture. Unexpected bumps or shocks can also cause bigger issues because older workers may struggle to recover their balance.
Slips, trips and falls are a major workplace issue, especially for older workers. Safety footwear needs to be specific for the environments that workers will be operating in and safety managers should consider wider requirements such as grip, comfort and the avoidance of foot fatigue, on top of physical protection.
For example, a sole unit is essentially a tyre tread, designed to provide grip performance and stability. Just as tyres are designed for specific terrains, so too are sole units. Therefore, it is essential to match sole performance to specific risks/environments.
If surfaces present a recognised slip risk, it’s worth looking for sole units with specially designed and tested slip resistant soles. Look for footwear conforming to the minimum requirements set out in EN ISO 20345/6/7 with a coefficient of friction test value (CoF). It is advisable to select test values higher than the minimum set out in the EN ISO – the higher the better. Also look for specific codes: SRA (tested on ceramic tile wetted with dilute soap solution), SRB (tested on smooth steel with glycerol) or SRC (tested under both conditions).
Heavy, cumbersome or inflexible safety footwear can increase the chances of foot fatigue and the risk of a slip, trip or fall. As a priority, look for insoles that accommodate different foot widths and use comfort foam for an improved fit. It is also important to consider anti-foot fatigue features such as foot arch supports and composite safety footwear which is lighter.
Thermoregulation (body temperature):
Because older bodies are less able to adjust to changes in external temperature or make temperature adjustments due to physical activity, older workers may find hot or cold environments more challenging, particularly those working outdoors.
Workers need to keep warm and dry at all times. Workwear is key – particularly jackets and work trousers with thermal and waterproof performance appropriate to the temperature and conditions they will be used in. Ideally, it should be possible to vary insulation and air flow, so a good choice would be jackets with multiple layers and thermal linings that can be added to or taken away as necessary to suit the conditions and needs of the individual worker. It is also important to keep the head warm and dry to maintain temperature. Clothing should be easy to put on and take off, be breathable, lightweight and not restrict movement.
Natural vision is likely to deteriorate as workers age, making it harder for them to see or adjust focus in certain distance ranges, reduce peripheral vision or find it harder to perceive depth, increasing accident risk.
Where eye tests reveal the need for corrective lenses, these can be supplied within a range of safety glasses and goggles (conforming to EN166 standard). Where existing prescription eyewear is used it should be worn with other PPE equipment such as facemasks.
Hearing can also change with age, with older workers sometimes finding it more difficult to hear at higher frequencies (high pitched sounds). Unlike other occupational injuries, there are no obvious signs of damage and problems can take years to diagnose. While older workers in new roles may already have damaged hearing, which cannot be repaired, it is vital that existing hearing levels are not damaged further.
Many work environments supply hearing protection such as earplugs or earmuffs, but few workers check for correct wear and fit.
Consider using a fit-test system that enables safety managers to document how much protection a worker receives with specific hearing protection. The result is a Personal Attenuation Rating (PAR). The value of fit-testing is immediate and powerful. If a worker obtains a low PAR (poor fit), hands-on re-instruction and re-fitting can be performed immediately. Should retraining with the same earplug fail to improve the rating, then a different earplug can be selected to more closely match the user’s ear canal anatomy. Alternatively, a different type of protection can be selected.
Older workers bring many benefits to a business and studies show that the majority of older workers are just as productive as their younger counterparts and take less short-term sickness absence3. However, age-related health and safety issues need to be carefully managed to protect workers and ensure that businesses fully benefit from the contributions that an ageing workforce can make.
For more information about Honeywell Industrial Safety, its products and services, visit the website at http://www.honeywellsafety.com.
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