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Operations: Ergonomic Design for an Aging Workforce

July 29, 2013
"It actually is in our benefit to make sure we find a way that a person can work longer and still stay productive and safe," says Lance S. Perry, senior ergonomist and professional engineer with Zurich Services Corp.

It's no secret the exodus of retirement-age workers and their considerable knowledge is placing a strain on manufacturing companies around the globe. Less discussed, but just as real, are the challenges being presented by aging workers still employed on the manufacturing floor -- and the design changes workplaces should be considering to keep these valuable employees productive and in the game.

Lance S. Perry, a senior ergonomist and professional engineer with Zurich Services Corp., extends this analogy: "If we all went home and drank the water and tomorrow we all came to work 8 feet tall, we'd have to modify the workplace because doors wouldn't fit, chairs wouldn't fit, workstations wouldn't fit, tools wouldn't fit. We'd have to change because of this dramatic shift in our size," he says. "We're not going to be 8 feet tall, but we will be considerably older."

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Indeed, the average age of a high-skilled U.S. manufacturing worker today is 56, according to the Boston Consulting Group. 

"With this shift, we first must appreciate the difference between the younger and aging person, and then make sure we design accordingly so that these differences don't become an obstacle," says Perry.

Xerox, for example, has taken ergonomic measures to address its older population. In its 2012 environment, health and safety report, the company noted that musculoskeletal disorders continue to represent about half of its work-related injuries and illnesses, "which is why we have strong processes to reduce ergonomic stresses in the workplace." Those strong processes include an ergonomic training program "designed to provide simple ergonomic strategies, as well as awareness of the normal aging process, to reduce personal risk to employees," Xerox states. 

"Many people view the aging workforce as a liability, and to some extent it might be, but it is also an opportunity." Perry says. "This is where your experience lies, this is where your job knowledge lies, this is where, in some respects, loyalty lies."

"It actually is in our benefit to make sure we find a way that a person can work longer and still stay productive and safe," he adds.

Age-Neutral Design

One means to do that is to design a workplace to be "age-neutral."  

"In the world of office ergonomics, it is all about adjustability," Perry says, citing the chair that moves up and down to accommodate taller or shorter people. "Everything is about making sure we can adapt and take care of the multitude of people. In manufacturing it is no different."

The key to age-neutral design, he says, is that, generally speaking, "if it is good for an aging person, it will also be just as good for a younger person."

For example, older workers may be less comfortable climbing ladders than younger workers, which begs the question: Can the work be redesigned so the employee doesn't have to climb a ladder?

"It's an aging issue, but it is also a fall issue," Perry says. "It becomes an age-neutral benefit in that all employees are off the ladder, not just the aging one."

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A key to determining what changes are needed is recognizing the differences between older and younger workers. The differences generally fall into three categories: physical, such as strength, balance and hearing; physio-logical, which includes endurance; and psychosocial, such as preferred work shifts.

In another example, Perry notes that the aging worker may have a reduced reach capacity, which could inhibit his or her ability to reach tools mounted at the back of a workstation. 

Introduce a smaller workstation, he says, "and then most people, even shorter folks, will have much easier reach requirements to the tools and supplies." 

Ultimately, Perry advises manufacturers to consider what design changes they can make to retain valuable, but aging, knowledge workers. "What can you do to keep them on the job longer and still be productive and safe in the process?"

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