OHS – Are your workers fit for the job?

OHS is not just about providing appropriate safety equipment and procedures. Employers need to ensure their workers are (physically and psychologically) fit for the job. Matt McDonald writes.

Responsible manufacturers regard OHS as a priority. They supply workers with protective gear, ensure machinery is well maintained, and allow employees appropriate amounts of sick leave.

However, in 2015 making sure that all the above has been seen to is not enough. According to Safe Work Australia, (for all sectors) compensation payouts have increased by over 70 per cent in the last decade.

And the two major causes of the increase are factors that many businesses may not have considered – the ageing workforce and the impact of mental illness and stress.

The ageing workforce

As Jeremy Keane, Managing Director of occupational injury management organisation, Injury Treatment told Manufacturers’ Monthly, the baby boomers are getting old.

“We’re seeing an older level of participation in the workforce which is quite obviously leading to an increase in workplace injury, especially in the blue collar or more physically oriented roles,” Keane explained.

“Their musculoskeletal systems are not what they used to be.”

Thankfully, said Keane, there are practical ways to deal with this fact. And they don’t involve the mass retrenchment of older workers.

“The first place to start is to get a good understanding of the physical requirements of all of your roles,” he said.

“Once you’ve done that you can start to work on an individual basis to determine people’s capacity to complete the role they’re employed for. And that’s really profiling your workforce to make sure you’ve got people who are physically able to complete the requirements of their roles.”

In cases where individuals are deemed not capable of carrying out their current tasks there are several avenues management can follow.

Depending on the business, they may introduce automation to reduce physical labour. Or they may look to redeploy those employees internally or change workplace flexibility arrangements with things like job sharing.

“And in the very extreme obviously you may need to move employees based on their ability to complete a role safely,” Keane added.

“That would be the last option for most employers. They obviously want to provide for their workforce, especially in Australia where we see low unemployment and a high skill level in your more aged employees.”

Determining the physical fitness of potential employees before they get the job can help to reduce the incidence of musculoskeletal injury before it even occurs.

“You can do some musculoskeletal testing to determine that when you bring people in to your business they can complete the role,” said Keane.

Times have changed and people no longer spend their whole lives at one workplace so the careful selection of employees could potentially phase out the problem.

Psychological injury

Figures from Safe Work Australia reveal that psychological workplace injuries are on the rise for workers of all ages.

According to Keane, this is partly because there is more awareness of mental health issues in general.

“We have seen a big increase in the press coverage of psychological injury in the workplace. There’s a higher level of reporting of injury just because people’s awareness is increasing,” he explained.

He also pointed to a change in the work-life balance. Longer working hours hours have contributed to the problem.

Interestingly for manufacturers, white collar environments where there are a lot of interpersonal relationships and a hierarchical structure see the highest rates of psychological injury. In such workplaces bullying and harassment are more likely to emerge.

Even so, manufacturing businesses are not immune to the problem and Keane offered some advice as to how businesses can handle the issue.

“You really need to see it as analogous to trying to prevent physical injury in that you want to get to understand the functional requirements of people’s roles and you want to ensure that you’re connecting people to the right jobs. That’s a very simple way to look at it,” he said.

He said that up-skilling management can help. They can be trained to be able to have difficult conversations regarding, say, performance with an employee without causing undue conflict or even being accused of bullying.

“That’s a little bit of an art. It’s a skill you can teach a manager,” Keane said.

On top of that he nominated employee training on appropriate interpersonal relations in the workplace and engendering resilience  as worthwhile.

Asked if Australian workplaces were on the right track in terms of promoting mental health, Keane answered optimistically.

“Anecdotally I’m starting to see employers start to invest a lot more in psychological injury prevention just as they have been for years in physical injury prevention,” he concluded.