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Aging Canadian workforce means changes to occupational health and safety programs

Peter Caulfield
Aging Canadian workforce means changes to occupational health and safety programs

A workers’ compensation researcher and consultant in British Columbia says an aging Canadian workforce will place increasing demands on workplace health and safety programs.

"More workers are working well past 65 years of age," said Terry Bogyo. "As a result, there will be more risks of workplace injury arising not from the workplace, but from the workers themselves."

Some of the symptoms of having older workers on the payroll are increased exposure to changing risks and other health problems that can complicate or prolong recovery from an injury.

"Because of changing health conditions, such as deteriorating eyesight and hearing and reduced muscle mass, older workers have more health risks than younger workers," said Bogyo. "And such conditions as diabetes, arthritis and hypertension become more common as a person ages."

The health and physical condition of most younger workers on the other hand, remain relatively constant until they get into their 50s when it begins to deteriorate.

"A 20-year-old will take an average of 20 work days to recover from a workplace injury," Bogyo said. "A 60-year-old, on the other hand, will take an average of 60 work days, or three times as long."

Developing and putting in place a plan to deal with this growing challenge is hampered by the fact that many Canadian companies are unaware how aging workers will affect them and other companies in their line of work, or even that their workforce is getting older.

"One of the reasons they don’t know is a lack of good numbers," said Bogyo. "Statistics Canada should be a good place to look for reliable data, but it is not the easiest location to get data a firm might need."

For those companies that are ready to tackle the problem, Bogyo has some suggestions.

"At the firm level, analyze your demographic trends," he said. "If the staff you have now is like it always has been and if you are confident the labour supply isn’t going to change, then all is fine."

It is more likely, however, that a company will find that its employees are getting older and that their susceptibilities to certain kinds of injuries are changing.

"I recall giving a talk to a group of U.S. employers," Bogyo said. "One very large company had noted the increase in claim duration and treatment costs. We discussed the data and found the firm had an aging labour force and that the average age of one of their injured workers had risen from around 30 to about 42."

Bogyo reasoned that, because age by itself is an important variable in recovery times, some of the increased duration of claims at the American company was due to the increasing age of its employees, not to changes in adjudication, administration or motivation to return to work.

"That changed the focus of the firm’s attention from blaming the increase on the insurer, the laws or their workers, to preventing the new and different set of injuries they were seeing and to improving their employees’ health and fitness," Bogyo said.

Not only is the Canadian workforce getting older, but so is the population as a whole. That too will have an effect on the composition of the country’s labour force.

In the next 30 years, the Canadian population is expected to increase by a little more than five million. The increase in the population of those over age 65 will account for nearly 90 per cent of that growth.

"This has implications for the demand for care services, health care, housing and transportation," he said.

Older people, particularly those over 80, are more likely to need health care, diagnostics and treatment by trained professionals.

"That means more young people will be attracted to health-related occupations instead of other skilled jobs that are needed," Bogyo said. "It means that young people who decide to go into nursing or health care don’t become electricians, truck drivers and construction workers."

An aging population is not just a North American problem.

"Over the next few decades, the median population age of many of the most important economies in the world, including the U.S. and Australia, is going to rise," said Bogyo.

Danie Gouws, president of the Occupational and Environmental Medical Association of Canada, said an aging workforce is the number one issue for the organization.

"People are working later than they used to and that presents a new set of challenges about managing the health of the workforce that need to be addressed," said Gouws.

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