Inside Logistics

Accommodating boomers: Warehouse safety for a mature workforce

Materials Handling


March 3, 2011
by Dave Luton

MM&D MAGAZINE, JANUARY/FEBRUARY 2011:

Like many people in Canada I was born between 1946 and 1964. That makes me a baby boomer—one of those born in the 20 years after the Second World War. I entered the workforce at the beginning of the 1970s and, like many boomers, I am now approaching retirement.

At one time, society expected employees would retire once they hit 65, or possibly earlier than that. But these days, because of anti-discrimination rules, reaching that age is no longer enough to force people to retire.

Tougher economic times means people stay in the workforce longer. Couple that with an aging population, as well as union rules that say job reductions are governed by seniority, and many companies today are faced with a workforce that’s getting older.

One concern regarding this older workforce is employees past a certain age might be more injury-prone than their younger counterparts. But data from the US reveals workers over 55 generally do not see an increase in age-related safety performance issues. In fact, older workers have fewer avoidable absences, a lower turnover rate and fewer work-related accidents. The highest accident and absentee rates are among young workers.

This suggests older workers are not likely to take it easy on the job. Although older workers face additional obstacles to performing their tasks, those obstacles can be offset through experience and knowledge. Throw in a strong work ethic, and more mature employees make a valuable addition to the workforce.

To keep productivity high and take advantage of that knowledge and experience, it’s important to allow for the physical changes and increasing limitations associated with age. Changes to the work environment, equipment and processes can add very little to costs, and yet the return on investment is potentially very high.

Hopefully, some changes should already have been made decades ago. If not, management may have been negligent in some responsibilities in this area.

To increase warehouse safety it is important to recognize that with age comes a reduction in physical and sensory ability. As years pass, people tend to lose height and gain weight. Muscle strength also decreases. Hearing—especially for higher pitches—also diminishes, as does vision.

In many warehouses older workers are often predominantly male, since women have only recently joined the ranks of warehouse workers. When it comes to pure physical strength, women are often weaker than men. That said, basic changes to accommodate that integration should have been made long ago and should be less of an issue than in the warehouse of 40 years ago.

Facilities should also be ergonomically smart and use proper processes and equipment. The basic strategy is to eliminate heavy lifts, bending, elevated work from ladders and long reaches. There is no shortage of equipment available to accommodate these objectives for just about any material handling task.

Automation can play a key role. For example, use equipment such as carousels or a mini-load AS/RS that brings the work to the picker, not the other way around. Even without changing equipment, a simple slotting exercise within static shelving to put high movers between knee and shoulder height can greatly reduce stretching and bending.

It can also help to assign tasks intelligently. Job rotation can reduce the risk of repetitive motion injury, particularly if combined with reduction of static standing times.

Don’t overlook the importance of operator comfort, such as rubber matting at standing work stations or proper seating that cushions a sit-down fork truck operator. As well, enhancements such as skid-resistant material for flooring—especially for stair treads—can significantly reduce slips and falls.

Accomodating many of the physical changes that come with age is relatively modest and inexpensive. Ensure lighting is sufficient; there should be enough lighting for both the general warehouse and a higher lighting standard for workstations. The increased operating costs of higher quality lighting can be offset by using motion sensors to switch off aisle lighting when nobody is there.

As well, try adding colour contrast or increased reflective capability by painting walls. Employees can’t avoid what they can’t see, so buy operator-friendly equipment like fork trucks with high visibility masts and design aisles properly. To keep corners safe, equipment such as concave mirrors can help avoid blind spots.

As computer hardware costs continue to fall, I advise buying larger-sized computer monitors and video displays. Software design that eliminates clutter from control screens is also a good idea.

To accommodate employees with reduced hearing, use modified audible alarms on mobile equipment for activities such as backing up. In general, it’s a good idea to lower the pitch of sound systems, such as on alarms, to make them easier to hear.

Regardless of age, proper training goes a long way towards reducing injuries. Allow employees time to practice tasks and develop familiarity with them. Finally, encourage them to work as a team and help each other with tasks such as heavy lifting.

Dave Luton is a consultant in the greater Toronto area. Email him at dluton@cogeco.ca.