HEALTH & SAFETY Old Gold – Safe and sound

Sixty-one year-old Bob Stewart is not as sprightly as he used to be. 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, 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 technical shift worker for 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, 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 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 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 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 lighter workload and so far, Stephen has been able to keep 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 ‘they’ll get over it and it will be all right’ attitude,” she says. “While employers are becoming aware of the importance of age-related health and safety, they are not necessarily doing anything about it.” Wright says people in their 50s are still working 12-hour shifts and there are real concerns around caregiver professions like nursing, where nurses in their 50s are expected to work 12-hour shifts and haul patients into and out of beds as if their bodies were much younger.
Although employer priorities by necessity include watching the bottom line, running the business and paying wages and salaries; skill shortages make paying attention to age-related health and safety needs good business decision.
According to recent white paper and survey by global recruitment firm Drake Personnel, growth in the supply of labour over the next 10 years will be firmly concentrated in the group aged 45 years and over. Statistics NZ backs this up, revealing people age 45 and over will account for half the New Zealand labour force by 2011.
Reflecting these realities, IBM New Zealand has initiated regular health and wellbeing seminars and is introducing flexible hours for older workers in bid to meet local information technology industry skills shortage.
“The average age of IBM New Zealand’s 700 employees is 41 and 27 percent of staff in Australia and New Zealand is more than 45 years old. We need to be flexible to retain talent,” says Paul Hallyer, human resource manager for IBM New Zealand.
Wright says older workers often have good work ethic, emotional intelligence, and can be good mentors for younger workers.
“They may have special needs but they also have lot to contribute,” she says.
Perhaps the most significant business benefit of implementing age-relative health and safety programmes is the reduced downtime through sick leave and lowered attrition rate that commonly results.
In recent work-life balance report commissioned by portable computer firm Toshiba, Mark Busine, general manager for research firm Development Dimensions International, said work-life balance issues consistently rate higher than remuneration as reasons people remain with an employer.
Finally, attention to the age-related health and safety needs of staff can be competitive advantage and companies do win contracts because they have the right health and safety measures in place.
“It is newly competitive thing to be health and safety [champion],” says Wright.
With one in seven New Zealanders employed in the performance and production-dependent manufacturing industry, safety as competitive edge is food for thought.
Business benefits and attitudes aside, many employers care about the people that work for them. So what is the cost of developing age-related health and safety policies? And where does employer responsibility stop and employee buy-in start? For example, is it really James’ employer’s problem if he is not sleeping when he should be? And what can an employer do if their 40-year-old accounts receivable clerk can’t see the computer screen through inadequate lighting but doesn’t mention it?
Wright says employers run businesses – not day hospitals – so apart from obvious health and safety needs, employees need to point out specific age-related health and safety needs to employers.
“What the employer needs to look at is the highest and lowest capacity output they can reasonably expect from an employee. At times, due to age or circumstance, they may need to find way for these two to meet in the middle,” says Wright.
As to cost, Tergo’s Walker says health and safety procedures and any associated training refreshers are not overly expensive.
“There is always time factor, but for an SME like us, I don’t think it is particularly hard or expensive and larger employer should be able to afford it on turnover,” he says.
Helen Hassett, health and safety manager for Stewart’s employer Unisys, says Unisys pays for several age-related health initiatives in New Zealand including wellness programme, flu injections and gym membership subsidies. It also has safety policies around shift work and OOS.
“The wellness programme costs about $100 per employee per annum and we see measurable improvements in productivity and reduced absenteeism from all our programmes,” she notes.
She agrees that establishing age-related detail in health and safety policies does not require lot of time, effort or cost.
“With our shift-work policy, we got employee participation and we went to the various agencies like OSH, ACC and the Department of Labour for guidance,” says Haskett. “The whole process probably took month.”
Walker says OSH is

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