Magazine article New Zealand Management

Old Gold: Safe and Sound

Magazine article New Zealand Management

Old Gold: Safe and Sound

Article excerpt

Many organisations still shy away from employing older workers, believing that they pose a higher health and safety risk than their younger counterparts. Yet recent evidence suggests otherwise. How can companies best manage health and safety issues across the age spectrum? What can organisations do to ensure that physical factors are countered by health promotion policies and individual changes in job design? Who is managing health and safety issues well and what can we learn from them?

Sixty-one year-old Bob Stewart is not as sprightly as he used to be. A mainframe engineer employed by Unisys New Zealand for 45 years, Stewart now suffers osteoarthritis in his knees and says getting down and doing cabling is becoming harder.

Shirley Hampton, a 71-year-old web administration employee for the Auckland City Council, is also unsure how much longer she will be working. "I hope if the council felt I wasn't coping they would tell me. The job does get tiring but I enjoy it," she says.

Clearly as people get older, work-related health and safety issues specific to the aging process arise and need to be managed. However, research underlines the reality that it isn't just older people that have age-related health and safety needs.

Take 18-year-old James. At 17, he was employed as a technical shift worker for a media company. Initially, he didn't give much thought to the nature of shift work but disruptions to his sleep patterns and the need to eat at unusual times of the day have slowly taken their toll on James' overall health. Today he is extremely tired, sleeps poorly, and finds his appetite deserts him about the time food arrives.

Jenn Wright, a health and safety consultant for Wright Direction Coaching, says younger employees often have difficulty managing workplace stress. And 2003 injury statistics from Statistics New Zealand reveal the most accident-prone age group is actually those aged 35-44--hardly ancient.

Ray Walker, managing director for chemical manufacturers Tergo, says people of different ages have different health and safety needs.

"We deal with chemicals that can hurt people. When you are over 50 your eyes work less well, you are not as strong as you used to be and older workers can become complacent about the risks. At the same time young people can think they are bullet proof and don't have to wear their safety gear. I wouldn't put a teenager on the manufacturing floor," he says.

Clearly, there are age-related health and safety issues for all age groups.

According to the Accident Compensation Corporation (ACC) there are between 17,000 and 20,000 new cases of work-related disease in New Zealand every year. That's disease, not accidents. Examples include melanomas for workers who spend a large amount of time in the sun - long distance drivers and surveyors feature in this group as commonly as farmers and orchard workers; musculoskeletal conditions; mental illness; ulcers and digestive disorders; and circulatory diseases.

If you're wondering how a circulatory disease can be blamed on the workplace, consider Stephen, an IT worker. At 44, Stephen had an operation for heart disease. While his employer financially and emotionally supported Stephen during his operation and time off, Stephen's cardiologist determined work-related stress, rather than diet and exercise, was the major contributing factor to Stephen's heart condition. After consultation, Stephen's employer, who had been considering asking for his resignation due to his ill health, admitted Stephen's workload had been unreasonable for some time. The employer initiated a lighter workload and so far, Stephen has been able to keep a job he needs and likes.

Wright says when it comes to addressing age-related health and safety needs, employer attitude is everything.

"With too many, there is a 'they'll get over it and it will be all right' attitude," she says. …

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