Recession, retirement and re-thinking OH&S

THE economic downturn has inevitably changed many of the 'givens' we grew to recognise before the World suffered a seismic economic shift of substantial Richter scale proportions.

THE economic downturn has inevitably changed many of the ‘givens’ we grew to recognise before the World suffered a seismic economic shift of substantial Richter scale proportions.

Statistical surveys such as that on Retirement Attitudes and Motivation by Prof N. Jackson conclude almost half of Australia’s workplace workers are delaying their departure from work.

Much reduced superannuation pay-outs mean many workers are looking to extend their working days.

In many ways this is a plus for employers since this body of men and women have accumulated considerable skills and competency levels. Not to mention high productivity levels.

However, the balance sheet as always, has a negative side to the credit column. In a nutshell, this body of workers, because of their age, have an increased propensity to suffer workplace injuries.

Employers need to plan for this growing risk exposure. We consider below some of these likely hazards and what can be done to minimise them.

With age comes change

Despite having high skills and competency levels these older workers – (60 years and older) do not always have the physical and mental strength and agility to perform tasks as speedily and accurately over extended periods of time.

A serious exacerbation of this risk occurs where employers impose a task production rate. For example: so many widgets to be produced per hour.

This can lead to increased soft tissue injuries and Workers Compensation claims. Worker recovery rates at this stage of the workers life can be very slow. Translating into very expensive WC claims that drag on and on.

Employers need to consider this potential business risk exposure in planning the work schedules for older employees. Work-station ‘postures’ becomes more critical.

Tasks that require a worker to stand or bend or maintain a fixed body position for hours at a time, can cause soft tissue injuries and increased WC claims.

The frequent locus of older worker injuries is back, neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, elbows and knees.

Manager should more closely examine the work process where older workers are involved. Conduct a Risk Assessment of the process to closely examine the “current controls”, as well as evidence your ‘due diligence’.

This risk assessment may have never been necessary before, but it may well be critical in these “new” circumstances.

Refer to NSW OHS Regulations 2001 as amended- Clauses 35 /36 and Section 15 (a) of the OH&S Act NSW 2000 as amended. In Victoria refer to Section 22 OH&S Act 2004 as amended.

An important aspect to be aware of is that older workers have often very different physical and mental agilities. There is simply no generalisation possible.

This presents the employer with all the more reason to conduct a risk assessment of a work process where these workers may be employed.

In this work risk assessment, it is not the plant or equipment that is the focus of the assessment but, rather the task’s individual physical and psychological elements and the workers ability to perform these.

Here consultation and obtaining input from the worker is critical. Bear in mind that the employer’s Duty of Care stretches to include psychological injuries.

This latter type of injury is becoming more prevalent in Australia and needs to be taken in to consideration in identifying your necessary Risk Assessments.

In planning for any worker’s health education program consider the findings of research commissioned by the Australian Federal Department of Health and Aging, which found that 6.6% of workers who drink alcohol have reported for work in a state of inebriation in the preceding 12 months.

Further, one in ten admitted they drank alcohol in the workplace and about 10% were drinking alcohol at “risky” levels at least once a week.

Since alcohol consumption is a major problem at all age levels in Australia – an education program relating to alcohol consumption in your work-place, is a subject worth careful consideration.

Bear in mind – education of employees is a mandatory requirement under OHS Law.

Accident rates show, older workers are more prone to slips and falls. Brittle bones can mean severe injuries. With potentially long WC absences very likely.

These can be avoided with risk assessments of especially: stairways, guard -rails and ladders that identify these high hazard areas.

Safe work hours (avoid excess overtime), safe work methods and suitable training programs are all effective in minimising the likely ‘older’ worker injuries. Do not underestimate older workers capacity to learn.

Since health issues can be more severe at a later time in a workers’ life, for example diabetes, cardiovascular problems, dementia, depression and hearing loss, employers need to look at introducing health promotion and health screening programs.

Where the numbers of older workers is rising in your workplace to more than just a smattering, you need to re-visit all of your OHS policies and procedures with a view to re-jigging all of them to take account of the safety needs of these often highly productive, reliable, low absentee rates in this group of workers.

Other OHS issues to re-visit include work under special conditions such as excess heat/cold, work at height, or adjacent to fast moving equipment (guarding).

New OHS policies may need to be put in place. Use of PPE may need better equipment. Safe Work Methods may need re-writing, and certainly more risk assessments will need to be done and recorded.

These are all really small investments, when weighing up the benefits of older workers against the new hazards arising. An older workforce means employers must look at the workplace with “fresh” eyes.

*Ray Schaffer is Principal Consultant with RMH Schaffer and Co, Health, Safety and Environment Consultants, 02 9878 0613, Visit, post a question and receive an answer – at no cost.