Ergonomics and the Aging Workforce

Workforce demographics are changing. As the workforce begins to show signs of increased obesity and aging, amongst other changes, it’s important to consider minimizing the possibility of physical strain with simple workspace design. “One-size fits all” is losing its validity within the workplace as an increased need for designs focused around the individual’s needs continues to grow. Research indicates that an increasing amount of employees retiring from their current position plan to continue working in some capacity outside their normal profession. Although some are choosing to continue working for financial reasons, many continue working beyond retirement age to stay productive and mentally and physically active.

 

Employers are changing policies based on this future forecast, finding ways to help older employees continue to feel valued. As employers begin reviewing policies based on this growing workforce demographic, it’s important to reevaluate workplace surroundings to better accommodate those individuals. Typically with age, comes a decrease in muscular strength, joint mobility and sometimes slower reaction and movement. This presents an opportunity for employers to focus on ways to reduce fatigue or discomfort. Although older employees may experience a loss of strength and flexibility, it’s important for the organization to call attention to the value the aging workforce brings with its expertise. Older workers tend to be more prompt and productive. Absenteeism is significantly lower than younger workers. Outside of increased reliability, their industry knowledge and customer focus are an invaluable contribution to the organization. To accommodate this instrumental segment, employers should reevaluate workspace designs, taking into consideration the typical physical diminishments we experience as we age.

The aging workforce faces several challenges such as a decline in range of motion and ability to retain posture, which can be aided with simple ergonomic enhancements. Reaching farther than 18 inches can cause strain on the back, shoulders and neck. To help reduce the possibility of strain, store items between knee and shoulder height to reduce bending and reaching. Equip workspaces with additional desktop organizers that bring repetitively accessed files and items closer to the individual. Mobile filing is also a great way to keep active files within reach without having to leave your seat. Visual acuteness and the ability to retain focus on distant objects can also diminish over time. Increase lighting to help reduce visual strain and bring documents closer to the eye with document and copyholders placed next to the monitor. As we age, decreased reaction time and grip strength become more difficult.

Many of the common workplace tools can cause additional stress on the hands and joints. Electronic staplers and ergonomic grip design can minimize manual dexterity. Your position at your workstation is equally important. Your work surface should stand elbow-high and your legs should be slightly extended past the chair with your feet resting firmly on the floor or footrest. It’s also important to remember that movement is key. Change positions on a regular basis (every 20 minutes or so) and stretch whenever possible. Prolonged static positioning can weaken the elasticity in muscles and tendons, especially in the back. Look for an ergonomic chair that provides dynamic lumbar support with ample molded padding and adjustable seat height. Ergonomic seating plays a large role in supporting the natural S-shaped curve of the spine. Let’s add laptops into the mix. As laptops and alternative workspaces become more common, there are some simple ways to encourage a comfortable work experience without being confined to a stationary desk. It might seem difficult to create an ergonomic workstation when your monitor and keyboard are connected. Although some ergonomic features are compromised for the sake of portability, there are some small but helpful things users can do to create a more comfortable, productive environment, oftentimes mimicking a desktop situation. Because laptop screens are typically smaller than desktop screens, eyestrain is an important factor. Try a laptop stand, which can angle your screen as well as your keyboard for ergonomic comfort. The angle adjustment will also better position your neck and back. Additionally, it’s a good idea to create a comfortable station at your desk so that once you return with your laptop, there’s a permanent ergonomic setup waiting for you. This could include a separate keyboard platform allowing you to place your laptop monitor on a riser while keeping the keyboard closer to your body. Also, a good wrist rest is an important feature to accompany any desktop or laptop. We’re not strangers to spending hours in front of the computer, and outside of sleeping, when do you sit still in one spot for 8 hours of your day?

We pay so much attention to the comfort and ergonomic posture of our mattresses that we sometimes forget about the 1/3 of our day at work. Every employee can benefit from an ergonomic workspace. However, with an increasingly aging workforce, it’s a good idea to retain that workforce in a good, healthy, productive and focused position. The skills and experience of the older workforce are far too important to disregard their changing needs. It’s advisable to make some small changes as these employees may tend to be more susceptible to bodily strains. And you’ll find that a well-designed workspace can benefit everyone, regardless of age.

Article courtesy of Safco Products Company.