Experienced Ergonomics: Taking Care of Our Aging Workforce

Posted on March 1, 2011

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By Adina Siperman

They were once called “The Golden Years.” They were the years after the age of sixty when, after forty or so years of employment, people would retire and enjoy their old age. Today, however, the workforce shows a growing demographic: those well into their golden years that are required to stay employed to meet the future expenses of their retirement. Human Resources Canada estimates that by 2011, approximately 41 percent of the workforce will be between the ages of 45 and 64, compared with 29 percent in 1991. This change has differing consequences on the employment landscape, including economic, social and political effects. One of the fastest growing transformations has been seen in the actual office place. Employers have had to ask themselves how to make their workplace ergonomically friendly to meet the changing needs of their aging staff. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), while aging workers do not get injured as often as younger workers, when they do get hurt, the symptoms are more severe and take longer to heal.

The office is a site that can prove to be hazardous to all employees, no matter their age or physical condition. Injury can occur from a number of ergonomic risk factors, including ill-situated computer screens, awkward positioning of chairs and uncomfortable placing of wrists and feet. Shirley Rolin, a Toronto-based occupational therapist, has done extensive work with employees injured in the workplace. “The most common injuries are to the hands, i.e. carpal tunnel syndrome, followed by the low back,” says Rolin. The CCOHS website also names tendonitis, epicondylitis (tennis elbow) and tension neck syndrome as common musculoskeletal disorders that affect the aging workforce due to years of repetitive motion.

The ergonomics industry acknowledged the need for well-designed, comfortable and stylish furniture and met the challenge. In an effort to reduce the aforementioned hand injuries, there have been a number of innovations made to adjustable workstations to place the keyboard at an appropriate level, split keyboards to ensure that hands are kept in a natural position and mouse pads scientifically designed to properly align the body.

As stated by the CCOHS, back injuries are the primary complaints among older workers. Rolin asserts that a good chair is the most important piece of office furniture to ensure a comfortable work environment and reduce the risk of injury. Some people may only work on the computer for a few hours a day, others may be on the phone, but almost everyone must be confined to a chair. Furniture companies have created a variety of chairs in all shapes and designs to guarantee comfort and eliminate tension on the neck, shoulders and back. Designs of office chairs differ and, in fact, the growing number of different designs is making it more and more difficult for employees to determine which chair is optimal. The advice of ergonomic experts is becoming increasingly necessary when making this important decision.

Lisa Cook is the director of human resources at an international health management company. Recently, her company changed locations and she saw that as a good time to respond to the growing complaints from employees regarding uncomfortable office furnishings. When considering outfitting the office in ergonomic furniture, Cook’s concerns paralleled Rolin’s expert advice. “Both desks and chairs were extremely important [decisions when redesigning],” she says. “Design of the workspace was key.”

According to ergoweb.com, case studies have shown that renovating or reorganizing workplaces have a direct effect upon efficiency. Not only is there a decrease in physical discomfort and levels of fatigue, but employees who are comfortable at their workstations tend to sit longer and produce more. Cook says it is too soon to measure productivity on account of the redesign, but her 62-year-old employee Beth Okun asserts, “I have noticed a substantial benefit because of the ergonomic furniture. I am more comfortable, more alert and I leave at the end of the workday relaxed and awake.”

No one knows at what age the new golden years of retirement will start for the aging workforce. But at least now there are ergonomists ensuring the golden workday.

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