Factors such as the 2009 recession, the worldwide economic malaise, an erosion in the value of superannuation savings, house price drops and the real value loss in wages have all caused working Australians over the age of 55 to continue working until they can afford to retire.
Changes to pensions and the tightened availability of other government benefits means that the average Australian will work longer, harder and with less return than they did 10 years ago.
It is a sad fact that older Australians are getting fatter and sicker.
The medical evidence overwhelmingly shows that age reduces the muscle strength, bone density and cognitive function that relates to people's physical judgement. Furthermore, the health statistics warn that those people working in manual handling and heavy industry are demographically likelier to have higher levels of health problems such as diabetes and excessive weight. They also often have riskier lifestyle factors, such as poor diet and limited exercise, in respect to their health.
What does this mean for the Australian workforce? It simply means that people who once could work safely are now continuing to work when it is not safe to do so.
Health economics shows that there is almost twice the number of trips and slips for people in the workforce aged over 50 years of age compared to those who are between 18 and 25.
The evidence further reveals that the longevity of injury for people who make claims for workers' compensation is significantly higher in the older age bracket.
None of these figures should be surprising. They reflect the medical reality of what happens to people.
Australian industry, however, has failed to recognise this impending injury epidemic to our older workforce. You simply cannot ask a person of depleted capacity to do the same work when it involves heavy lifting or repetitious work that exposes the person to joint and soft tissue damage.
Those working in industries such as manufacturing and health are moving inexorably towards damage. Strangely, although employees have job descriptions, business owners have not taken the time to develop appropriate task analysis nor do they conduct regular health assessments to determine if people can undertake those tasks.
They are simply flying blind.
Australia is presently the fourth fattest country in the OECD and getting fatter. The percentage of people staying in the workplace after 45 is nearly 97% for men and nearly 75% for women. Those numbers are now continuing into the over 55-year age bracket — an age of significant injury risk.
Although this aged workforce holds the intellectual property, skills and experience necessary for business to profit, the failure to analyse their capacity to undertake duties means these particular talents are at risk of being lost through injury.
What can employers do?
1. They must immediately undertake an accurate task assessment of all job descriptions to determine the physical and mental capabilities required to do the work.
2. They must introduce (in consultation with relevant unions and under appropriate award and enterprise agreements) a health assessment process that determines if particular employees can undertake the work.
3. They must then look at re-engineering their business to keep the requisite knowledge, skills, and intellectual property within the business but ensure that people are not placed at risk of injury.
The cries of age discrimination and mass job losses are the noise of people that catastrophise this process every time it is raised, preventing Australian businesses from dealing with it properly.
Older people will lose their jobs if action is not taken now. But the job losses will happen because these employees will be injured, damaged and left incapable of obtaining any other work.
Is that really what Australians want for their ageing workforce?
Andrew Douglas is a Principal for Macpherson + Kelley Lawyers. He is the Editor-in-Chief of the loose leaf publication, The OHS Handbook, and writes on workplace law issues such as Industrial Relations, Employment law, OHS, Equal Opportunity, Privacy, Surveillance and Workers Compensation. He appears in courts, tribunals and Commissions throughout Australia.