Workplace Planning & Design

Is building and facilities management age ready?

With the focus increasingly on ensuring low cost, efficient and future-proofed operations, are we as a society sleepwalking into an imminent and expensive problem? David Usher of InterAction of Bath looks at the growing challenge of the inevitable.

Successive governments have struggled to deal with the issue of how to fund the National Health Service. An important aspect of the problem is the changing nature of the society the NHS serves. Quite simply, we are getting older, and an increasingly aged population brings with it a burden that the NHS will be unable to carry unless we address the simple fact that our society is not correctly set up to enable independent living later in life.

There is a reason why so many elderly people find themselves living in care; they are unable to cope any more in their own homes. Simple things like stairs and high cupboards become obstacles that cannot be overcome. And yet many, if not most, older people would prefer to remain in their own homes and lead an independent life. This would of course suit the NHS and the taxpayer as the cost of looking after older people would be significantly decreased.

There is another pressing issue here – one that concerns the commercial world. We are all expected to work later in life, and for many of us that will mean well into old age. Yet the same challenges apply. Our workplaces are generally not set up to accommodate an increasingly elderly work force, or indeed increasingly elderly customers. But they will certainly need to be.

Business and building owners, as well as facilities managers, will remember the inconvenience and expense incurred by the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act of 1970, which first required the needs of disabled people to be considered in the design of public buildings. Infrastructure such as wheelchair access ramps and disabled toilets were shoehorned into buildings that were, as far as the healthy sector of society was concerned, fine as they stood. But of course they weren’t fine, and the realisation that they weren’t came with a substantial cost to society and business for its previous short-sightedness. The lucky businesses and organisations were the ones who occupied buildings that were already disability-friendly and that therefore required minimal rectification work.

The size of the growing challenge is immense. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has recently warned that within the next 15 years, 24 countries will become ‘super-aged’, having more than 21% of the population aged 65 or over. So the inevitable future for business is one with ever larger numbers of older employees and customers who need environments and working practices that are suitable for their increasing frailty and diminishing abilities if they are to remain effective and efficient in their work. This isn’t a future that can be avoided; businesses cannot sidestep the issue by choosing only to employ younger workers as younger job candidates will come with a premium. We can also not rule out the possibility of legislation being introduced in the future that, like the disability legislation before it, enforces change to better suit an older workforce.

Business and building owners, facilities managers, architects and designers need to recognise this impending challenge and think now how they can start the process of change. The task is essentially simple. Workplaces need to become more aged friendly. But what exactly does that mean and how can it be achieved?

Ergonomists have the answer. The first step is to find out as much as possible about the ageing population. What size are they? How far can they stretch? What weight can they lift? How mobile are they? How well can they see? These questions can be difficult to answer as there is a shortage of relevant information about older people. However, ergonomists are now developing databases of anthropometry – the sizes and shapes of people – using new technology such as 3D scanners. This is delivering a comprehensive knowledge base.

The second step is to use this anthropometric data in the design and planning of all workplaces, whether it be new build or refurbishment.

Another technique ergonomists use is ‘link analysis’ – observing a task in situ and recording the physical movements it requires. The concept of link analysis is no doubt reminiscent of the ‘time and motion’ studies that were ubiquitous several decades ago. But those studies were about improving productivity, while link analysis is a more involved and scientific process. When combined, anthropometric data and link analysis provide a powerful knowledge base from which design can be informed to produce highly effective environments suitable for all.

The key to delivering future-proofed working and business environments suitable for an increasingly aged population is to include ergonomics in the design process.

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