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09/03/2017

Ergonomics: safe and healthy workplaces for all ages

Europe’s ageing workforce means organisations are becoming increasingly keen to help retain older employees and reduce workplace absences. Ergonomics in the context of work is increasingly being used as a means of improving workplace design and of preventing, controlling or eliminating workplace risks.

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Ergonomics is a scientific discipline that can be applied to occupational safety and health (OSH) to improve the safety, well-being and comfort of workers. The aim is to enhance the safety of systems at work and therefore, more broadly, of society as a whole.

Europe’s declining birth rate means organisations need to retain and make the most of its older workers. Ergonomics can help employers across all industries to optimise their working systems to reduce risks, and in turn, reduce absenteeism and early retirement.

Ergonomics has applications across different areas of OSH. Physical ergonomics, for example, covers risks relating to working postures, manual handling operations, repetitive movements or workplace layout. Other areas of application include environmental ergonomics (temperature, lighting noise, etc.), and ergonomics in office work relating to prolonged static postures, use of computers, psychological demands, work-related stress and visual fatigue.

At Austrian organic foods distributor SONNENTOR, a number of measures were introduced to help older workers cope with physical strain. These included wrist and leg supports and ergonomic chairs or balls to sit on that counteract neck and back pain. Attention was also paid to the height of computer screens. In the processing department where workers lift heavy bags of up to 25kg, workers were given permission to adjust that weight according to their own capability.

SONNENTOR also introduced complementary measures such as reduced working hours, additional health promotion coaching and in-house mentors to improve relations among workers of different ages. Results showed a decrease in sickness absence, and the initiative helped SONNENTOR to achieve national Nestor Gold certification (a standard measuring generation-sensitive labour organisation).

Success factors identified in the case of SONNENTOR included the strong communication and employee participation and the flexibility of measures. Having this flexibility is also important for facilitating the return-to-work of employees with disabilities. Often all that is required are simple ergonomic interventions or small job modifications to help injured or disabled workers back to work.

Risk assessments also help organisations identify workplace hazards and risks, and consequently determine what ergonomic improvements can be made to work premises. To guarantee continuous improvement companies can focus on different areas every year, just as Solystic in France have done with great success.

Along with annual ergonomic assessment of their work spaces, each year Solystic targets a different category of workers in order to identify strenuous working conditions.

Once identified problems are quickly solved, with particular attention paid to the furniture and equipment. Work stations were equipped with height-adjustable furniture, task chairs were bought, knee protectors were provided to workers who often knelt, and headlamps were provided to employees working in poorly lit rooms.

While ergonomics can play an important role for both manual and office jobs in reducing absenteeism and early retirement, it should be remembered that in isolation ergonomic measures are insufficient. A wide-ranging approach, which includes organisational measures such as flexible working times, general work-health promotion, education and training, is much more likely to be successful in helping all workers have long careers in good health.

For a fun look at how you can promote healthier and more productive workplaces and address the challenges of an ageing workforce, check out the video series ‘Napo in…back to healthy future’ and particularly the scene “Positive position” about ergonomics. Find out more by visiting the Healthy Workplaces for All Ages campaign website where you can keep up-to-date with the latest news and events. You can follow us on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter, using the hashtag #EUhealthyworkplaces. You can also subscribe to our campaign newsletter.