Challenges in Workforce Ageing: Enhancing Occupational Safety for Older Construction Workers in Hong Kong

應對勞動力老齡化挑戰﹕提升香港年長建造工人職業安全

Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis

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Award date17 Jul 2020

Abstract

The 21st century workforce is ageing. Changing demographics has led to a labour shortage, and one solution to this problem is to encourage older workers to stay in the workforce longer. However, ageing is accompanied by a general decline in physical capacity and a rise in chronic health problems. The increased ageing rate and prolonged work life of the workforce are likely to result in more workers with potential diseases and disabilities working at older ages. This scenario leads to elevated occupational safety risks.

An ageing workforce and shortage of manpower are especially prominent in the Hong Kong construction industry. Employers may resort to retaining older construction workers who are relatively unhealthy and have relatively low working capacity. Thus, important issues should be addressed to improve the occupational safety of older construction workers. This thesis, comprising four studies, focuses on enhancing the occupational safety of older construction workers from the perspectives of workers and managers.

In the first study, an extensive review of the research published in the past 30 years on age-related occupational safety and health (OSH) risks was conducted using the meta-analysis technique. Results showed that ageing has an aggravating effect on the OSH of workers. Specifically, the odds of older workers suffering from non-fatal occupational accidents is slightly lower (6.7%) than that of younger workers, but older workers suffer from 1.63 and 1.28 times as much severe/fatal accidents and occupational health problems, respectively, compared to their younger counterparts. Older workers in the construction industry are more vulnerable to occupational accidents than older workers in other occupations. Study 1 highlights the necessity of improving the occupational safety of older construction workers.

Work conditions and work behaviours are two main streams of risk factors that cause industrial accidents. Although the physical capacity and health status of older construction workers decline with age, their work conditions usually do not change accordingly. Study 2 aims to address the issue of adjusting work conditions (including job demands and job resources) to meet the health conditions and physical capacity of older construction workers. In this study, a cross-sectional questionnaire survey was conducted with a sample of 340 older (aged 50 and above) construction workers in Hong Kong. The prevalence of health problems and occupational accidents suffered by older construction workers was investigated. The patterns of occupational accidents characterised by job demands, job resources, physical work capacity and health conditions of workers were analysed using the decision tree method. Results showed that older construction workers suffer poor physical and mental health. The rate of severe accidents for older construction workers is considerably higher than that for younger workers. Physical work capacity and physical and mental health are critical factors that affect the occupational safety of older construction workers. However, a proper design of job resources and job demands to match individual health-related factors can mitigate the increasing occupational safety risks for older construction workers.

Study 3 focuses on improving the work behaviours of older construction workers by considering age-related characteristics when examining the organisational and personal factors that underlie their safety behaviours. A cross-sectional questionnaire survey involving 260 older construction workers (aged 50 and over) was conducted. An integrative old-construction-worker safety behaviour model (OSBM) was established on the basis of the theory of planned behaviour. Results suggested that the OSBM provides a considerably good explanation for the safety behaviours of older construction workers. The explained variances for safety participation and compliance are 74.2% and 63.1%, respectively. Subjective norms and perceived behavioural control are two critical psychological drivers that proximally affect the safety behaviours of workers. Moreover, safety knowledge, management commitment and ageing expectation are the distal antecedents which significantly influence psychological drivers. This study proves the mediating role of psychological factors on predicting safety behaviours amongst older construction workers, thereby promoting an understanding of ‘how’ and ‘why’ safety behaviours occur. The identified effects of several critical organisational and personal factors, particularly age-related factors, also provide new insights into the safety behaviours of older construction workers.

The guidelines and recommendations obtained above for improving the occupational safety of older construction workers can find expression in practice only if management members take action. Study 4, therefore, went further to examine the associated factors underlying the high behavioural intention of construction managers in granting safety measures for their older workers. A vignette study which combines the experimental design and traditional survey was conducted amongst 161 construction managers in Hong Kong. The examined factors covered the dimensions of characteristics of older workers, types of safety measures and demographics and perceptions of construction managers. Results revealed that most construction managers define older construction workers as those aged 60 years and over. The individual perceptions (i.e. awareness of workforce ageing, age norms and attitude towards older workers) of construction managers play critical roles in influencing their likelihood of possessing high behavioural intention in granting safety measures. Construction managers who work in small and very large companies and have limited work experiences tend to possess high behavioural intention of implementing safety measures. In addition, construction managers are likely to offer safety measures to senior-skilled workers and to those who have accident records. The individual factors of construction managers should be considered and emphasised to facilitate safety and wellness programmes for older construction workers.

Overall, the findings of this thesis can provide recommendations and insights to construction employers to take advantage of the ageing workforce whilst reducing the occupational safety risks of their older workers.