Fighting fit

Losing the fight against the middle-age spread? You’re certainly not alone in the mining profession where ageing workforces have raised issues of physical capability. While mining companies want to retain older workers with their high skills and knowledge base, they are increasingly looking to “fit for work, fit for duty” policies which address general physical and emotional issues associated with ageing.
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Angie Tomlinson

Traditionally, organisations have worked towards reducing work place health hazards such as exposure to noise, heat and dust. However, the emerging trend is to go beyond legislative requirements and offer health promotion initiatives to encourage employees to achieve optimal health.

This is particularly significant in the longwall sector where an ageing workforce is prevalent. Health promoters Corporate Bodies International have been involved in running of healthy lifestyle programs at 17 coal mines and six collieries in New South Wales and Queensland over the past two years.

Managing director Leanne Scanes told the Queensland Mining Industry Health and Safety Conference in August results from its programs had been successful in reducing individuals’ risk of lifestyle related diseases.

“Weight, waist, blood pressure, body fat, flexibility and exercise levels were measured, and changes noted, as participants undertook healthy lifestyle programs or seminars,” Scanes said.

While the conclusion an older worker is less physically or mentally capable than a younger worker cannot be drawn – generalisations can be made.

According to Scanes there are a number of issues related to the ageing process which should be considered when designing work tasks:

Aerobic capacity – which tends to decline with age

Reduction in endurance resulting from the natural ageing process

Decrease in muscoskeletal strength (especially around 45-50 years of age)

Decreased ability to cope with shift work

Diminished resistance to physical stress – leading to an increased chance of injury and longer recovery time

Changes to mental function – decreased perception and speed of perception

Australia is behind the developed world when it comes to placing an increased emphasis on employee health. One possible reason is Australian companies are not required to pay the health care cost of employees, unlike their American counterparts.

“When considering the costs of poor health to business, and its increasing relevance, it becomes evident that initiatives need to be taken to reduce the incidence of workplace accidents and injuries, and subsequent worker’s compensation claims,” she said.

Scanes also revealed, perhaps surprisingly, men who choose to participate in health promotion tend to older and overweight. This is particularly important to the mining industry which faces the challenges of an ageing workforce.

Many of the participants in Bodies Corporate International’s programs were in their 40’s, 50’s and 60’s.

“The greatest motivators for many workers was illness or even death of a workmate, friend or family member. With the ever increasing incidence of lifestyle diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer and diabetes, it is rare to find someone who has not been touched in some way by these conditions.”