Considerable attention is rightfully afforded to the safety all workers on construction sites, but often with a greater emphasis upon younger staff.

Certainly, efforts to boost awareness about safe practices amongst younger employees are welcome – especially as many of these workers lack experience, are vulnerable to accidents if not adequately supervised, and can be se on the path to a safe and rewarding career if they develop good habits early.

Nevertheless, data from Safe Work Australia covering the 11 years spanning 2003 to 2013 points to another interesting phenomenon: injury and fatality rates are in fact more common amongst older construction workers.

Amongst employees, the figures show that those over 55 accounted for 11 per cent of the construction workforce but almost a quarter (24 per cent) of fatalities on site. Amongst the self-employed, those over that age accounted for 19 per cent of workers but a whopping 55 per cent of fatalities. On a per thousand worker basis, employees aged between 25 and 54 are more than twice as likely to be killed on site compared those aged either 25 to 34 or under 25. For workers aged 65 or older, the probability of fatality on site is six times that of workers in younger age cohorts.

The data is less stark when it comes to claims for serious injuries (covering the three years spanning 2009/10 to 2011/12 only). Nevertheless, it shows that workers aged 55 or older are 40 per cent more likely to lodge a claim compared with those under 25. Moreover, the average worker in this cohort is off work for more than nine weeks against four weeks for those under 25. This suggests that older workers either suffer more serious injuries or take longer to recover.

At the outset, it should be acknowledged that older workers often add immense value to the construction workforce and play an important role from a safety perspective in terms of looking out for younger workers and sharing lessons learned through experience.

Nonetheless, the data raises questions about why older workers are a statistically high risk group and what strategies employers should adopt to manage risk for older members of their workforce. One possibility is that older workers with more experience may be entrusted with tasks involving higher risk. Older workers are more likely to self-employed (another high-risk group), although even amongst employees, older workers still have higher injury rates.

Older workers may also be more heavily concentrated in more high risk or labour intensive roles such as bricklaying, carpentry or manual labour. Aside from that, it is possible that some older workers may be more physically susceptible to injury (see below), have a greater tendency to use outdated work methods, be more confident in their roles (and thus more complacent) and be less likely to be pulled up on issues of unsafe practices.

Monash University associate professor Peter Smith urges caution about the above data. Courtesy of the thankfully sparse nature of fatalities (399 over the 11-year data period), he says it is difficult to draw conclusions upon this data. Courtesy of a serious claim being defined as one in which one or more days off work are required, this data may also be disproportionately skewed against older workers due to their slower recovery time frames, he points out.

While it is true that general markers of function such as strength, grip strength, flexibility and aerobic capacity generally decline with age, meanwhile, Smith says other things like experience increase which can help to prevent injuries. In addition, he says studies have generally found that performance on familiar work tasks does not differ between older and younger workers to a great extent.

“As a result it is hard to say, based on the data presented, if the difference in serious injury rates are due to differences in injuries in general, if the injuries sustained by older workers are more severe, or if there are differences in the length of time older workers take to return to work after an injury, compared to their younger counterparts,” Smith said, referring to the Safe Work Australia data.

He says strategies need to move away from any focus upon demographic statistics, ages or occupations. By focusing on the worker rather than the environment, he says these approaches detract attention away from hazards which exist within the environment and protection measures which respond to these for the safety of all on site.

Jason Goodall, a consultant at occupational health and safety firm Work Safety Hub, says many of the injuries which are shown in the data as having occurred to older workers may in fact represent an accumulation of stresses which have built up throughout the worker’s life. In days gone by where these now older workers were young, Goodall says many were faced with a bravado culture which necessitated a premature return to work. Over time, he said these ‘battle scars’ impact the body. Since our muscles do not repair as well as we age, Goodall says workers who have serious injuries which have been left untreated from younger years and have been aggravated over time are more likely to result in a musculoskeletal injury and claim with a prolonged recovery period later in their career.

Because of this, Goodall says it is important that younger workers who suffer injuries take adequate time to recover prior to returning to work. Not to do so, Goodall says, increases the risk of more serious injuries and the potential shortening of careers later on.

Goodall said there are a number of possible factors behind the higher fatality rates amongst older age cohorts. Noting that the most common cause of construction worker death was falls from height (accounting for 28 per cent of construction fatalities over that period), he said a high portion of deaths occurred on ladders, mobile ramps and scaffolding with a percentage of these being falls from a roof. Given that the largest number of fatalities were in the older age cohorts, this could be indicative of reduced dexterity, agility, and balance in later years, Goodall said. In addition, he says factors such as wear and tear, health conditions, ailing body tissues and even heat stress could also be at play.

Nevertheless, he said some of these considerations are offset by a tendency for older workers to follow more robust work methods and to assume fewer risks – often delegating more physically demanding tasks to others.

With regard to the serious claims data, meanwhile, Goodall says the physically demanding nature of work in areas such as bricklaying and carpentry may result in workers in these roles becoming more susceptible to traumatic joint/ligament and muscle/tendon injuries as they age.

Finally, both Goodall and Smith say the value of older workers in driving safer practices on site should not be underestimated.

Thanks to the experiences of many now older workers in the past, Goodall says, safety practices for younger workers are safer today.