Ageing workforce will result in higher OHS costs, legal expert warns

Businesses are being warned to ensure staff are consistently able to perform their physical duties at work even as they age, as an older workforce could potentially open up employers to a range of workers’ compensation lawsuits.

The warning comes just days after the Australian Bureau of Statistics released figures showing the number of older workers in Australia has doubled within the past 10 years, with over 1.93 million workers aged over 55.

While some analysts say this has helped relieve the skills shortage, M+K Lawyers principal Andrew Douglas told SmartCompany this is actually a legal liability.

“This is going to become much more of an issue over the next few years, as we have a population that is staying in the workforce beyond the ages they have done so in the past,” he says.

“Employers should be aware this can open them up to potential compensation claims.”

The issue is that although workers may have fitted a job description in the past, as they age their ability to perform those same tasks may have deteriorated.

“The two things you do in creating a job description are giving a task assessment, giving a summary of the mental and physical tasks. And when the workforce ages, it becomes apparent in many industries the physical capacity to undertake those same tasks is reduced.”

Douglas mentions hospitals as a main example, where nurses are becoming older but still perform the same tasks, but says there are a range of industries including manufacturing where workers are becoming older and still performing the same activities.

“You have this dilemma where nurses have an aged workforce, and there is a risk there. And these things are not just acute injuries that pass quickly, this is about people who may no longer be able to perform the same duties.”

“The capacity to work has reduced but there is an obligation to keep them there.”

The solution isn’t a simple one, Douglas says, but employers must realise how necessary regular health checks are.

“At the moment there is some opposition from the unions which suggests regular health checks are private and inappropriate. But they are necessary to protect people from injuring themselves.”

“As this situation continues and you have these regular health checks coming, it may mean some people lose their jobs but it can also allow for an engineering of the workplace.”

The latest ABS figures show that in 2011, 73% of people between 55 and 59 years of age were working, up from 61% in 2011, while 25% of people aged between 65 and 69 were still working. The majority of those were also working full-time.

It’s a natural occurrence as life expectancy grows, but Douglas says he’s expecting a number of lawsuits to come soon that’ll dictate how important it becomes for employers to promote regular health checks.

“I think we’re close to a tipping point. As the workforce ages, sooner or later we’ll get a flood of these claims.”


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