The current retirement age in Australia is 65, however, Gen Xs will now retire at 70 and it can only be assumed that Gen Ys and Millenials will be looking at working well into their 70s.
Among a number of issues associated with maintaining employment into the 7th decade of life is coping with musculoskeletal disorders such as back and neck pain, hip and knee arthritis, shoulder tendonitis, and overuse and arthritic conditions of the wrist and hand. These conditions can certainly affect the workability of a person in labour work as well as those in more sedentary occupations such as business managers, clerks, plant operators and truck drivers.
Statistics show that older workers experience compensable injury rates similar to their younger counterparts (1), however they may need additional support to manage their health. They remain productive workers with a wealth of experience however, and retention of valued older staff is critical to good business. So how do we support older workers to remain productive into their 60s and 70s?
Employers have a duty of care to ensure a healthy and safe workplace. This duty of care is no more onerous for older workers than it is for any other age group. Hazards must be identified, risks assessed and controls implemented. When a worker has a unique need or condition, a worksite assessment and functional capacity evaluation can be used to identify any mismatch between a worker’s capabilities and the demands of their job. Through this evaluation, it can be identified whether a worker’s capabilities might improve and the solution can often be as simple as a few sessions of physiotherapy or injury management education. Other times, the condition may be longstanding and in that case, it may be necessary to modify the work.
Back on Track are regularly engaged to assist with the needs of older staff and have provided assessment and advice for workers and their managers. The following are a few examples of how we have helped.
John was a 65 year old office worker with a lengthy history of lower back pain. He had self-managed his condition for many years, attending occasional chiropractic treatment. He had needed a few days off work, once or twice per year when his back pain flared up. Back on Track was engaged to conduct an ergonomic assessment and provide injury management advice to John.
John had moved to a new office around a year earlier, and he indicated that he had never felt quite right in the new chair that was provided. Assessment revealed that his director-style chair offered insufficient adjustability and a seat pan that was too deep. New seating was recommended and John was provided injury management education. Assessment revealed that he had tight hip flexors and hamstring muscles and he was instructed in stretches that he could perform right there in his office. He was also reminded of the importance of incidental movement, and he agreed to install an app that would remind him to get up and move about regularly. Between the new chair and recommended healthy habits, John reported that he hadn’t felt so good for years and to date, he has not had a flare up of his back pain.
Cheryl was a 60 year old chef working in a canteen who reported right elbow pain. Worksite assessment identified that she was developing tennis elbow from chopping salads and handling the deep fryer. Changes were made to the height of her chopping board, she was provided with a bulk chopping tool and the deep fryer basket was given a second handle. Cheryl also attended physiotherapy. The combination of workplace modifications and early treatment meant that Cheryl was able to keep working, her pain settled and a lost time injury was avoided.
Barry was a 52 year old labourer working with a trenching crew, when he developed increasing pain from the osteoarthritis in his knees. He had played rugby semi-professionally in his youth and had always worried about his career longevity because of his knee troubles. His orthopaedic specialist had indicated that he needed bilateral knee replacements but he was reluctant to have the surgery. He had been struggling with his work and his manager engaged Back on Track to conduct a functional capacity evaluation.
Assessment revealed that Barry did indeed have deficits in his capacity and that he was not suited to trenching work. He was unable to squat, kneel or crouch and he was unsteady on uneven surfaces. Barry was fortunate to work for a large employer and they offered him the opportunity to redeploy and train in their warehouse. He already had a forklift ticket and had worked in a similar role years earlier. Back on Track assessed the new role as being suitable for Barry. He was given injury management advice including safe access in and out of the forklift, how to set up the seating for optimal knee positioning and he was advised in appropriate exercises to maintain his leg strength. Barry settled in well to the warehouse and reported that his knee pain settled down within a few months. He was thrilled that he didn’t need to consider surgery just yet and his employer was happy to have managed the risk of injury on the job to a much lower level.
 Australian Workers’ Compensation Statistics, 2014-14. Safe Work Australia, p.14