Enhancing safety of older workers in Singapore's workplaceBy Karl Hamann
The reality of an ageing workforce is rapidly dawning upon Singapore.
The numbers speak for themselves. Macroeconomic projections like, by 2030, 19% of Singapore's population would be above the age of 65, compared with about 12.4% in 2014, is a stark reminder of the upcoming reality.
From the perspective that manpower is a fundamental driver of economic growth, the shrinking labour pool on account of Singapore's ageing domestic workforce will place constraints on manpower supply. Given the view that every worker makes an important contribution to the Singapore economy, keeping each of these workers safe and secure would do well to support supply to the workforce.
Concurrent with this on-going discussion, much research and debate have emerged on how ageing workers tend to raise the risk of fatalities in the workplace. Evidence in some developed economies shows that when an older worker does get injured, their injuries are often more severe. They also may take longer to get better. This slows the potential positive contribution to any economy, not just in Singapore.
Specifically, in the US, research shows that 35% of fatal workplace accidents typically involve a worker 55 and older. Hence, this has driven safety professionals and researchers in developed countries like the US and UK to invest their energies and resources to find ways to accommodate the ageing workers, not to mention, keep them safe in the workforce.
Ageing workers still constitute valuable supply to the workforce
Singapore is on the same track. Singapore has recognised the need to step up awareness, understanding, acceptance of workplace safety and health, for all workers, including those putting on in years. The intensified focus to safeguard older workers in the workplace was evident from the July 2017 announcement by the Tripartite Oversight Committee (TOC) on Workplace Health.
Specifically, the TOC aims to reach 120,000 mature workers by 2025 by working together with developers and businesses to deliver accessible, customised and targeted programmes to meet workers’ occupational and general health needs.
Through its ecosystem approach, demand can be aggregated so that workers at co-located work sites and those employed by small and medium enterprises may also enjoy on-site health and safety services and programmes, amongst other areas.
Singapore is also showing its commitment by stepping up efforts on other fronts. Earlier this year, the Ministry of Manpower in its 2017 Committee of Supply debate in Parliament said that WSH Construction Regulations will be enhanced to tackle three areas of concern, including that of older and low-wage workers.
These relate to vehicle-related accidents within worksites, accidents involving formwork, and lack of proper supervision, communication and coordination of work activities. The ministry has indicated that it will also consider laying out in the WSH Act clear roles of corporate officers in maintaining an efficient WSH system.
The government has clear goals. As a matter of fact, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently announced that Singapore should aim to reduce workplace fatalities to less than one death per 100,000 workers in 10 years' time.
Other stakeholders and employers can make further efforts to attain this.
Empirical studies in developed countries show that simple practices can go a long way in protecting older workers in the workplace. Organisations can and should work to pro-actively identify ways to support ageing workers and develop customised strategies to reduce risks due to aging and physical demands.
Businesses who are not prepared to respond to the needs of workers as they age will likely face workplace safety consequences and productivity challenges.
Simple strategies to get workplace safety & health for older workers going
Here are some simple and effective approaches to ensure safety for older workers:
For a start and widely practiced in some of the more developed economies, with reasonable flexibility, older workers can be given greater flexibility in their work schedules, work conditions, work organisation, work location and work tasks. They can also be afforded slightly greater autonomy over how, when and where work is completed. This could include telecommuting or reduced or flexible hours.
According to one survey in the US in 2013, nearly 80% of older workers it surveyed indicated that flexible work options like job sharing and creating a job to meet their specific needs enabled them to stay alert, healthy and productive in the workplace.
Increasingly being adopted is the effort by employers to provide and design ergo-friendly work environments, including workstations, tools, floor surfaces, adjustable seating, better illumination where needed, and screens and surfaces with less glare.
Teamwork is core to the success of many organisations and leveraging on this notion can certainly help enhance workplace safety. Hence, organisations should use teams and teamwork strategies to address age-associated problems in the workplace.
There is an adage that older workers are more experienced workers. Hence, providing management skills training for supervisors and older workers is likely to constitute an effective approach to manage a multigenerational workplace.
A good start is for organisations to plan for workplace safety and health, given Singapore’s ageing workforce phenomenon. When these older worker fatalities start rising, general insurers would eventually price such risks into premiums. A good advice is for organisations to develop strategies ahead of the curve.