Productivity drive set to impact OHS

Employers should start building workplace employee support programs aimed at minimising age-related risk exposures.

THE advent of a New Year and a new decade presents Australia with several serious challenges. One key challenge is the threat to the economy of an ageing population.

Consider the facts: the proportion of Australia’s population aged 65 and over will jump from 14% to 23% by 2050 according to an estimate of the Treasury Department back in 2003.

The impacts of this surge will be increased national health costs, and the increased costs of the aged pension. If your thinking is ‘yes’ but these threats will not present a problem for years to come, let’s consider just two examples that are current and undermine this already wobbly thinking.

First, eye cataracts – this is an expensive problem right now for many of our older workers. Maybe you are aware that the federal government elected to cut the rebates for this surgery by 50% due to spiralling costs. This is a serious problem for many older workers that can only increase exponentially in the years ahead.

Happily, for the present, the Government has been forced to compromise and cut payments by 12%.

Second, pensionable age – Wayne Swan has very quietly already increased this to age 67. Clearly, the government realises that the answer to this challenge is that it is not too soon to start to make changes. The future is already upon us.

In an article entitled ‘Labor knows the nation must go for growth when it comes to productivity as well as wealth’, Michael Stutchbury in the The Australian dated 23 January 2010, explains what the productivity figures were back to the 1990s. He quotes the prime minister who noted labour productivity grew by 2% per year at about that time. But, since then this has fallen to 1.4% over the first decade of this new century.

In the face of this decline the PM has now proposed the country take the “high productivity path” so as to return productivity to the 2% figure. This is more fully set out in the recently released Intergovernmental Report 2010 (IRG3). The report defines what is needed to enable older workers to remain productive in the workforce.

One part deals with Swan’s provision of a $43m package to facilitate retraining and other initiatives to assist older workers continue working.

Likely impacts

How might this new reality impact on OHS? And, furthermore, what are the likely impacts on OHS and the employers’ responsibilities?

Take the last mentioned change to a higher pensionable age. Older workers are on the one hand more capable and more experienced but, also more vulnerable to illness and accidents and injuries.

Examining this development from another angle, a federal government’s tourism department finding, in research carried out in the later part of last year, is that Australian employees are hoarding annual leave and not taking an annual break from work. The research showed that this failure by employees to take leave was due to: a work project that necessitated delay as well as worker anxiety about taking leave to find the job had been made redundant.

There are many examples of generators of worker anxiety in the current tough economic climate. This never ending cycle of work, work and more work comes at a cost. And these ‘costs’ show up in increased “sickies” due to illnesses both physical and psychological. And these illnesses all too often become workers compensation claims. The latter impacting heavily on employers through premium increases.

Pursuant to the above, a relatively new trend and one currently growing in seriousness is the psychological illness of workplace stress. Workcover NSW recognises the increasing incidence of this in the new regulatory framework now in force for psychologists and counsellors and which came into effect on January 1, 2010.

What has occurred, during the past year in particular where employees have had to shoulder larger workloads and longer shifts due to reductions in staffing levels, is the increase, often substantial, in psychological pressure.

Add to this, the fact that a growing number of the nation’s workers who are working longer hours are older men and women. Workers with, for example, reduced visual acuity performing work where increasingly computer driven machines necessitate good vision. These screen-based jobs occur not only in offices but also on the shop floor in a wide variety of computer-guided machines, requiring good visual acuity.

Eye-sight deficiencies can also impact on motor vehicle drivers. An increasing number of older workers are employed in the long haul and courier industries. Failing eye-sight is but one example of age-related worker problems. Loss of hearing is another. And then there is the fact of extended periods of worker exposure to toxic chemicals.

While some toxic chemicals are being replaced by more benign water based equivalents, a study of the new toxic substances being marketed shows this category is currently growing exponentially. And these toxic chemicals exposures will show up in more medical illnesses.

Impact reduction strategies

How then is the employer to better manage these new trends especially as they relate to older workers?

One method is by establishing, for example, a periodic eye testing regime in the factory, or the business. In this way the employer can minimise the risks associated with the older worker’s diminishing eye sight.

Another employer’s positive strategy has been the planning of shift work to include work rotation and to take in to account the age of rostered workers. Workers can be screened using urine and blood chemistry analysis for high levels of chemicals in their systems.

In regard to annual leave, all employees need a period of rest and relaxation and employers should not only encourage this but insist on the taking of leave, perhaps split into two parts.

One part to be solely rest and relaxation and one part to be used by the employee in attending a training program funded by the Government. The potential advantage for both employer and employee being that the employer plans for and encourages the older worker to re-train for a different position in the business.

Since consultation is a mandatory part of employment it should be possible for the employer to be able to identify the increasing levels of stress in the workplace and their cause. Stress generator awareness building meetings can identify the stress factors (stressors) in the workplace and can lead to strategies being developed to identify address and defuse these stressors. Most important of all be sure to update your OHS policies and safe work methods and make them complete so as to cover all foreseeable risk exposures.

The findings of the IRG3 should alert us to the fact that Australia has an ageing population. This will impact on everyone in Australia sooner rather than later.

Every employer should start now with building workplace employee support programs, aimed at minimising age-related risk exposures and thereby assist with increasing safe workplace productivity.