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The ageing workforce and health, safety and wellbeing

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Proportion of Qld workforce aged 65 and over

Managing an ageing work force is becoming an important factor to consider in all workplaces in Australia. Currently 3.9 per cent of workers in Queensland are aged over 65. Census data trends indicate this figure has doubled each decade since 1997 and is likely to increase further. Queensland’s largest employed age group (783,000 workers) ranges between the ages of 45 to 64 years (Chief Health Officer, Queensland Health, 2018).

In order to support and retain ageing workers, employers should consider implementing appropriate support systems and processes for health, safety and wellbeing which meet their needs. Recent research, in the form of a workplace manager survey conducted by the Office of Industrial Relations and the Australian National University (ANU) highlighted that although workplaces are aware of ageing workers, there are limited resources and planning undertaken to accommodate their diverse needs. The Ageing Workforce Report (PDF, 738.58 KB) reflects the survey of 1017 people in management positions in a large range of businesses and organisations across a range of industries.

Ageing is not new, but longevity is. There is now an increased need for people to work for a longer period and workplace viability will likely be dependent on the ageing workforce.

Managing the health, safety and wellbeing of an ageing workforce is an opportunity to develop productive workplaces for people of all ages. As workers are staying in the workforce longer, their ability and confidence to perform certain tasks may change. The ability for them to perform tasks is impacted by how work is designed and organised, the type of work performed, the support that is provided and what is done to manage their own health.

Benefits of age diversity and inclusivity in the workplace

Having a diverse workforce can create innovative and dynamic workplaces (Willing to Work report AHRC 2016). The ANU workplace manager survey 2018-2019 found that businesses believe hiring older workers can benefit their organisation. Older workers have advantages in that they can bring experience and knowledge that can be used for efficient problem solving. They also may be skilled in various verbal and written communication styles. Evidence also supports that older workers are better at regulating their emotions and coping with stress.

At some point workers can find physically demanding work undesirable, regardless of their age. Redesigning physically demanding work so that it is less strenuous may help keep workers, regardless of their age, engaged in the workforce longer.

Physiological changes that occur with age

Physiological changes that occur with age include:

  • Physical capacity starts reducing from the age of 30 for men and women, with an increase in decline after 70 years of age.
  • Older workers are more likely to experience effects from occupational disease and injury as well as chronic disease as these develop over time. For example, work that involves hazardous manual tasks, dust inhalation and unacceptable noise levels may take many years before the impacts on the body are felt.
  • Changes to sensory systems (vision and hearing) are most common in workers aged 45 to 64 years.
  • Slips, trips and falls are more common among workers who are over 45 years of age and workers’ compensation claims for these incidents incur more costs. These injuries can be serious for all workers, although older workers experience a longer recovery time (Kemmlert et al 2001).
  • Ageing can also cause disturbances in performance and sleep. This makes it difficult for older workers to adapt to shift work (Kandolin, Finnish Institute of Occupational Health).

Where to start

To help create appropriate workplaces for the ageing workforce, workplaces should:

  • Focus less on production rates and more on the quality of work in providing meaningful work that is mentally challenging and requires older workers to use their full skill set. This could include providing opportunities to mentor.
  • Create a culture that recognises all workers. This may minimise workers opting for early retirement that is not health related to avoid age discrimination actions such as not providing training opportunities to a worker close to retirement.
  • Ensure safe systems of work are in place by using the principles of good work design. Consider the content and organisation of tasks, activities, relationships and responsibilities within a work role (Parker 2014). For example, good work design could include:
    • review of shift times, hours of work or where work is performed
    • provide opportunity for self-pacing
    • minimise exposure to high forces or repetitive work
    • give opportunity to produce quality work and be responsible for outcomes.
  • Establish open communication at work to ensure that older workers’ needs are being met and adjustments made as circumstances change. Open communication should occur between workers, supervisors, health and safety managers and human resources personnel.
  • Consider implementing strategies such as:
    • regular upskilling and reskilling of workers to promote life-long learning
    • skilling workplace managers and decision makers about how to have appropriate conversations regarding the needs of workers at different life stages
    • flexible work conditions so that workers can care for family members, attend health appointments or work reduced hours
    • providing financial ‘fitness’ education programs
    • offering options for early transition to retirement, including planning to ensure successful adjustment for both the worker and the workplace.
  • Perform risk assessments of workplace hazards. Especially in relation to older workers, consider their changing sensory and physical capabilities (vision, hearing, balance and strength). Manual task risk assessments will help the workplace identify hazardous manual tasks that could contribute to the development of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). It is recommended to use a participative approach and consult with workers on their job tasks to improve their work environment, equipment used and the cognitive requirements.
  • Create a culture that values a healthy workforce by creating healthy work, managing work and supporting healthy lifestyles.
  • Offer modification work options for workers with changes in capacity and ability.
  • Focus on work ability not disability. Use technologies that will support workers with health conditions that may impact their ability to stay in the workforce. This can include voice recognition software, touch screens and wearable devices. Use government funding programs to support workers who may require workplace changes, aids and equipment to keep them safe and productive at work.

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Last updated
23 December 2019

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