Safety for older workers

Judith Davey
5 April 2019

Way back in 2003, Justine Cornwall and I prepared a scoping paper for the Accident Compensation Commission – The Implications of an Ageing Population for the ACC – through the New Zealand Institute for Research on Ageing.

Our findings showed that, overwhelmingly, the majority of accidents and injuries to people over 65 years occur in and around the house, related to the greater time that older people spend in their home environments. For example, in the 75+ age group 78% of men’s injuries and 82% of women’s occurred in and around the home, which includes garages and gardens.

But with larger numbers of people 65 plus in paid employment, we reported, there had been an upward trend in the number and cost of work-related claims for older men and women.  We concluded that population ageing would bring higher demands on the ACC budget.

The same message appeared in a recent study from the University of Otago. This said that, between 2009 and 2013, more than one in five accepted ACC claims for traumatic work injuries were made by workers aged 55 to 79. These researchers, like us, a decade earlier, foretold that this “significant burden” on the ACC was certain to grow[1] . But there is some doubt about these high rates. ACC claim rates per 1000 working population in 2016 were highest for the 20-29 age group. Information from a recent Tasmanian report[2] concluded – “It is a common but incorrect belief that older workers suffer more injuries than younger workers”. Moreover, ACC data on the causes of accidents at work show the same results for older and younger workers – mainly falls and lifting.

Despite this controversy it is certainly true that more needs to be done to keep older employees safe from work-related injuries. And any help for this group will make the workplace safer and healthier for all workers.

Key Risk Factors
Most of these are easily identified –

Bone strength: as we age, trips and falls can become more common and more likely to result in serious injury.

Muscle strength: our muscle strength and elasticity may decline, and muscles are slower to respond. This may increase the risk of injury.

Vision and hearing: may deteriorate with age, but this can be offset by using hearing aids and glasses.

There is plenty of advice for employers for action in these areas, but there are wider considerations. It is time to set aside stereotypes and negative attitudes based on myths about older workers’ capabilities, and the perceptions that older workers are frail, unreliable and incapable of working effectively and safely (see the illustration in my last blog). Older people are not all alike. Productivity is individual and varies more within an age group than between age groups.

What needs to be done?

Safety professionals in workplaces need keep in mind age-related trends, while avoiding simple stereotypes about older workers.[3] This means checking workers as they age to find out what kinds of support they need to continue to perform their jobs effectively. Can work roles be shaped to better suit people’s changing abilities and needs? This fits in with my conclusion that both jobs and workers need to adjust as the labour force ages.

Employers – can provide mechanical devices and power tools for lifting and moving; set out guidelines and training for lifting, bending and stretching. They can ensure proper lighting and offer exercise or stretch breaks.

Workers – can make sure they use the equipment provided; use ladders properly and be cautious on steps; stretch before, during and after work. Minimise squatting, bending, kneeling and stooping.

Generations working together

I could go on, but one final piece of advice offered to employers, which appealed to me, is to get people of different ages to work together (see my blog on mixed age workforces). It could especially be useful where new technology is involved. Pairing the employees who have institutional knowledge with those who have new eyes to see how things could be done differently can be a powerful combination.

Summing up work performance and age

Depending on the nature of the work, job performance may improve, remain constant or decline with age. But in almost all cases, training, changes and adaptation within the work environment can improve safety and performance and offset the effects of physical and mental changes related to ageing.

 

[1] Age-related patterns in work-related injury claims from older New Zealanders, 2009–2013: Implications of injury for an aging workforce. https://www.otago.ac.nz/news/news/otago668569.html

[2] Australian Human Rights Commission (2018) Employing Older Workers: Research Report. https://www.humanrights.gov.au/sites/default/files/document/publication/AHRI_AHRC_EmployingOlderWorkers_Report_2018.pdf

[3] https://www.safetyandhealthmagazine.com/articles/16139-safe-at-any-age

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About Age Concern New Zealand 'on research'

At the heart of everything Age Concern does is a passion to see older people experience well-being, respect, dignity, and to be included and valued. We support, inform and advise older people on issues such as access to health care, transport, housing, financial entitlements, and social opportunities. We also work to combat real problems in our society, like elder abuse and neglect, chronic loneliness and social isolation. We provide specialist services with trained and qualified professionals able to give expert advice and assistance. Age Concern is a charity and relies on the support of volunteers and public donations to do much of the work we do. To help us help older people, please consider making a donation of your time or money. To see how, visit www.ageconcern.org.nz
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