Wisdom may come with age, but so too does a tendency towards slower injury recovery rates. With an increasing percentage of the energy sector’s workforce nearing retirement, Murray Elliott says employers should be aware of this aging demographic, identifying common risks and managing the potential hazards accordingly.

“One of the things to note is that while older workers have a much lower frequency of injury claims, they do take longer to come back,” said the Energy Safety Canada (ESC) president. “As such, the best practices most companies have are fairly robust return-to-work programs to ensure they integrate people back in safely and as quickly as they reasonably can for mental and physical well-being.”

He added: “We have created targeted campaigns based on the different needs of the different cohorts. Companies themselves actively manage it.”

Carol Howes, vice-resident of communications and PetroLMI, a division of ESC, told the Bulletin that 15.1 per cent of the oil and gas labour force was age 55 to 64 in 2016. By comparison, in 2006 just 8.8 per cent of the industry labour force was in that particular age group.

She said: “Certainly, that age group is growing proportionally, because the age demographic is increasing in the oil and gas industry, like it is in other industries across the country.”

According to a 2017 Statistics Canada study, the Canadian workforce is aging quickly and by 2026 about 40 per cent of working-age Canadians could be age 55 and older. In 2016, Canadians aged 55 and over accounted for 36 per cent of the working-age population, which is up from 30 per cent in 2007 and an average of 25 per cent through the 1990s. The working age population consists of those 15 years old and older.

The first wave of baby boomers began turning 55 in 2001, noted the StatsCan study. In 2016, this generation was between the ages of 51 and 70, and by 2021 this demographic will fully transition past age 55.

Meanwhile, the share of Canada’s population aged 25 to 54 fell from 54 per cent in 2007 to 49 per cent in 2016 — the lowest proportion since the federal agency began compilation of comparable statistics in 1976. StatsCan projects this proportion to keep declining, and it could drop to 46 per cent by 2026.

For the exploration and production sector, approximately 42 per cent of workers in 2016 were 45 years old and up, Howes said. “That is one of the larger contingents of older workers. When you think about it, it makes sense. Many of those jobs are office based. They are engineers, geologists, geophysicists, and they are the ones who have the extensive industry knowledge and expertise.”

Conversely, she noted, for the services sector about 62 per cent of the workforce was under age 44 in 2016, as that segment of the industry includes operators, field workers and labourers.

Patrick Delaney, vice-president of health and safety at the Petroleum Services Association of Canada (PSAC), told the DOB that due to the physically-demanding nature of many oilfield services jobs, people closer to retirement age typically do not work in field operations, although there are certainly exceptions.

“I think with the process of aging, people come to their own understanding and their own place where as they get older they simply find they cannot do the work,” he said, adding a company cannot fire a worker simply due to the fact he or she is advancing in years — that would be discrimination. Companies do have fit-for-work requirements, though.

“Obviously, if you have people on your crews showing signs of inability to meet the physical demands of the job, then as an employer you have an obligation to address that, because then they are becoming unsafe.”

However, noted Delaney, while older workers tend to take longer to recover, it is in fact younger workers who pose more of an occupational health and safety challenge, and that is where industry must concentrate more of its efforts.

“Our focus, and the stats show, right across the industry it is the younger workers, age 18 to 24, and workers who have been on the job less than a year, who have the highest injury rates.”

With age comes wisdom…

The thing about getting older is one tends to become very much aware of one’s capabilities and limitations, Delaney suggested. Younger people, by contrast, tend to overestimate abilities and underestimate vulnerabilities.

“We all reach the stage, at some point or other, where we realize we certainly can’t do ‘this’ or ‘that’ anymore. I would suggest that is the case with the workers out there doing heavy, physical work, and not just in our industry.”

He added: “I know I wouldn’t consider doing today what I did when I was 20 or 25.”

Typically, an injured older worker takes longer to heal, noted Delaney. However, it is younger workers who are over represented, not the older ones, in Workers’ Compensation Board (WCB) claims.

“Certainly, we have to pay more attention to the younger workers, because they are ‘indestructible’ in their own view. The law requires us to provide younger workers with extra orientation and training and what have you. That is very specific. The law makes no specific reference to older workers, but it does to younger workers.”

When looking at Alberta’s WCB figures, Elliott said, typically one sees approximately twice the frequency of claims for younger workers than for older ones.

“More experienced people see half the claim rate,” he said, adding the types of injuries differ between the oldest and youngest workers as well. “For the younger workers, most of them are ‘struck by’ or ‘caught between.’ These are physical injuries as a result of being struck by something. Whereas with older workers what we typically see is a higher percentage of claim rates are ‘falls at the same level.’ These are slips, trips and falls that result in medical treatment.”

However, Elliott emphasizes that with a really strong focus on improving safety over the decades overall, the industry has seen injury claims drop by about half for the 2006 to 2016 period when compared with historic figures.

Still, the length of time it takes them to heal can be an issue with older workers, according to Delaney, and it means WCB claims costs for older workers can become significant.

He added: “If someone in their late 50s gets injured, what are their options if they have to be retrained? Do they just take an injury pension or benefits until they reach retirement age? Those are the kinds of issues employers have to deal with for the older workers.

“We are still required to provide them with employment, but the issue becomes: What kind of work can they do when they are injured? For a serious injury, how long is it going to take to heal?”

Most workers still in the middle

Retirement is quickly becoming a reality for baby boomers, and PetroLMI estimates that over the next five years 22,000 to 23,000 direct workers to the oil and gas industry will exit the labour force. However, Howes noted, those estimates are based on historical retirement rates, and the recent downturn may have changed things a bit.

“Some retired earlier as a result of the downturn, or were forced to retire earlier as a result of the downturn,” she said, adding others actually may have stayed on and worked longer. “Given those sorts of discrepancies, there is still a large contingent of baby boomers expected to retire over the next few years.

“So the expectation would be that this will result in an overall younger workforce, certainly in the shorter term anyway, until that balances out.”

Demographicswill change, but a significant portion of the workforce is still in the 45 to 54 age range, Elliott told the DOB. Therefore, the presence of an older, perhaps more safety-conscious workforce segment will persist.

“Right now, around 23 per cent of the workforce is between 45 and 54. It is not as if anything is going to fall off the cliff two years from now.”

The oldest and youngest cohorts really only make up the smaller percentages of the industry’s workforce, said Howes. It is the middle bubble that is the largest contingent of workers. “The 45 to 54 year olds make up about 23 per cent, the 35 to 44 year olds are about 27 per cent, and that’s the same with the 25 to 34 year olds. You can see that most workers are within that 25- to- 54-year-old group.”

As for ESC, she added, it continues to push out information to all these specific cohorts, targeting the kinds of injuries associated with each group, and how to avoid and prevent those.

“We also do things like lunch-and-learns where we have discussions with those groups, specifically targeted for those age groups and those types of injuries. These are information and education-type programs.”