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Published: Fall, 2005; Vol 7, Num 3

Aging Workforce Drives Interest in Ergonomics

According to many analysts, the number one issue in U.S. and Canadian production is the aging workforce. This is a particular concern in construction, especially in union companies which generally have less turnover among their core employees.

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LHSFNA Management Co-Chairman Noel C. Borck

“The advantage of older workers, of course, are their skills and experience,” says Noel C. Borck, Management Co-Chairman of the LHSFNA and Executive Vice President of NEA – The Association of Union Constructors. “But common sense tells us that older workers, because of the physical demands of construction, are going to be more susceptible to bodily strains and pains on the job. In many cases, just a little pre-planning can limit these injuries.”

“Ergonomics is kind of a dirty word to a lot of construction managers,” says Scott Schneider, the LHSFNA Occupational Safety and Health Division Director who has sometimes butted heads with opponents of the ergonomic regulations he has championed, often unsuccessfully, at OSHA, in Washington state and at ANSI. “But many of the ergonomic proposals we’re making are low cost and will boost profit in the long run. When you take in consideration the aging workforce, this is all the more clear.”

Since 1970, the number of construction companies in the U.S. has increased by more than 600 percent. Yet, with the demise of vocational education programs and the opening of the high tech industry, a smaller percentage of young people are attracted to construction work. Competition for workers, especially skilled and experienced workers, has intensified. Companies are fighting to retain their best employees and to keep them healthy and on-the-job.

Moreover, over the last two decades the cost of health insurance, workers’ compensation insurance and health care services have risen sharply. These rising expenses are another reason for companies to avoid injuries.

However, data projections indicate that between 1998 and 2008 the number of medical claims among construction workers who are 24 to 54 will rise about five per cent. In contrast, due to the aging of the workforce, the number of claims among those 55 or older will increase by 50 percent.

Also, the average duration of lost workdays for a worker 19 to 29 years old is 10.4 days. For a worker aged 50 to 59, it is 47.7 days.

“Based on these data alone, it would seem to be in a company’s interest to have a youthful workforce, but actually that’s not the case,” says Schneider. “Less experienced workers are more likely to get injured on the job, and the quality of their production is lower. Overall, that means more short-duration injuries as well as slower production, more defects and more rework. Despite the greater potential health costs of older workers, they are a cost saver compared to younger ones.”

The cheapest and most effective way to mitigate the potential rising costs of an aging workforce – while continuing to exact the benefits of its skills and experience – is the adoption of ergonomic interventions.

Chief among these is staging which, in turn, is a matter of effective planning. Staging involves the storage and positioning of materials and supplies, the location of work areas, the nature of work stations and the availability of equipment for moving materials.

Thoughtful planning and implementation ensures that materials and supplies will always be stored as close as possible to the work areas in which they will be used. Lay down areas should be within 50 to 75 feet of the project. This kind of positioning will limit both the time necessary to move materials and the injury risks to employees who have to do the moving. Also, if possible, materials that are manually handled should be stored at waist height so that they can be easily lifted. Similarly, work stations – such as for cutting rebar – also should be at waist height to minimize bending and lifting. Finally, manual handling of heavy materials should be the last resort.

“These kinds of interventions are virtually cost-free,” says Borck. “All they require is some planning and persistent implementation. The most common and expensive injuries on construction sites are generally back-related. If companies pay more attention to planning – and to training their supervisory personnel to appreciate the importance of these ergonomic interventions – they’ll have fewer injuries and lost workdays, and they’ll see steady improvement in their bottom line.”

[Steve Clark]