By 2016, workers age 65 and over are expected to account for 6.1 percent of the total labor force, up sharply from their 3.6 percent share in 2006, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. This demographic shift means companies will continue to benefit from the experience of seasoned employees, but likely will need to address a new set of ergonomic needs. This week, we spoke to Blake McGowan, Ergonomic Engineer with Humantech Inc., to understand what companies can do to maintain the productivity of their most valuable workers.
GT: For those who aren’t familiar with the term, can you quickly explain, ‘What is ergonomics’?
BM: Ergonomics is a science focused on designing the workstation characteristics to match the worker’s capabilities and make that job intuitive for the worker to do. We try to address things that are in within an arm’s reach, such as a control, a computer screen, a materials handling task, or an assembly line.
GT: Why do companies invest in ergonomics?
BM: Traditional reasons are reducing injuries and injury costs. A company might have high number of injuries, high frequency of injuries or a high amount of worker compensation costs, and they realize the root cause of that is the design of the work station and what the person is able to do.
Many companies also have started to realize that when we apply the principles of ergonomics in a systematic way, there are all these extra benefits, such as improving operator performance, improving safety, reducing injuries, increasing the productivity of a facility and enhancing the quality of a product. So that’s what gets people motivated to do this and I would say the majority of the Fortune 500 companies understand that and use it as a business advantage. It’s a way to cut costs and enhance performance.
GT: How do you know if you need to invest in ergonomics for an aging workforce?
BM: From a pure population standpoint, we know from the Bureau of Labor statistics that the age category of people under age 25 is decreasing so we won’t have as many people coming into the workforce. And on the other side of it, we know that people who are close to retirement are going to be forced to continue working because they may not have that financial stability; their 401K may no longer look the way they want it to, and who knows if Social Security will be there in the future? Some of the statistics show that there will be people working into their 70’s and some of those individuals will have to do manual labor.
A lot of companies are also beginning to realize that they need to have experienced workers in their organization in order to be successful. These are the experienced people in the workplace; who have been with the company for many years, who understand the unwritten worlds, how to solve complex problems, so we definitely need to figure out ways to keep them.
GT: How do the ergonomic needs of older workers compare to those of younger workers?
BM: When we start to talk about the aging population, we need to first define is who we’re talking about. Many people are surprised to learn that by about age 45, we start to experience changes in our physiological systems. Our strength, speed, coordination, vision, memory and information processing all are affected by the aging process. The reason why we need to understand these things is because they will have implications on how we work.
GT: What are some of the areas that ergonomics can address?
BM: It could be as simple as providing people with correct working heights or changing the way workstations are lit. One of the things that happens as we start to age is that we’re not able to see things as well. What might have worked well with the lights on the ceiling when we’re 20 may not be the case when we turn 55. So there might be a need to modify the workplace so we provide each person in each age category with task lighting. That way they can see everything in the right way.
It also could be a lot more complex, such as reducing strength requirements for job tasks. That would be a big deal, especially in heavy manufacturing. The fact that our strength might be decreasing doesn’t mean that we’re no longer a valuable member of the company. What we can do is to use some very good principles to help this person be as effective as possible. For example, the mere step of providing someone the objects that they’ll be handling in a materials handling situation at the correct height to ensure that that person can extend their career and continue to add value to the company. If we don’t design that material handling task for that experienced person, we’re know that over time they’re more likely to get injured, which would take them away from work.
The goal of ergonomics is to design for what people do well so we have to get to that baseline first. The next thing is how to improve our systems that the extra 5 or 10 percent to address the needs of our most experienced, valuable workers.
Blake McGowan is a Managing Consultant and Ergonomic Engineer with Humantech Inc. He’ll be presenting solutions for addressing the ergonomic needs of older workers in NAEM’s “Ergonomics of an Aging Workforce” webinar on May 24.