People with disability at risk at work

Monday, 20 August, 2007

Australia is currently facing a labour force shortage. As part of a variety of initiatives to help ensure the maximum workforce, people with disability (who have lower labour force participation rate compared to the general rate) are being encouraged to join the workforce. The expected increase in workforce participation of people with disability, and the employer concern about increased risk of occupational injury for this group of people, led the Office of the Australian Safety and Compensation Council (ASCC) to review the extent to which they are at increased risk of occupational injury.

In 2003, more than 2.2 million Australians (17% of the 15 to 64-year-old working age population) reported having a disability. ASCC conducted a literature review and analysed the Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers (SDAC) 2003 data to determine the prevalence and types of disability, types of employment, potential barriers to labour force participation and the risk of occupational injury.

There is very little research on occupational health and safety risks of people with disability and most studies are conducted overseas. The best available evidence for Australian workers comes from a large national study which found that people with disability have lower injury rates and lower workers compensation costs compared to an average employee (Graffam et al 2002). A US study attributed 3.5% of workplace injuries to existing disability and the main disability types associated with an increase in injury risks were severe hearing loss and vision loss (Zwerling et al 1997).

SDAC data shows that labour force participation of people with disability differs according to the type and severity of disability, the number of co-existing impairments and age. Some groups of people with disability, such as people with hearing loss, have a participation rate equal to or higher than that of the general population. Those least likely to be in the workforce are older people with multiple disabilities. This group of people also have the poorest health.

The research on workplace accommodation for people with disability indicates that up to a quarter of the expressed accommodation needs of employees with disability are not being met (Zwerling et al 2003; SDAC 2003). This is despite the fact that reasonable accommodation is required under anti-discrimination legislation.

Accommodation provided to workers with disability often does not address safety concerns, but is put in place to enable a person to work in a particular environment (Watson et al 1998; Zwerling et al 2003). The issue of reasonable accommodation on the basis of safety hazards was not reported as an issue in the data. As such, further research work is required in this area.

ASCC also analysed the qualifications of people with disability who were not employed (the potential workforce) and found that the majority had qualifications suitable for jobs where slight or moderate growth was predicted and these jobs do not appear to have high injury risks. Based on the existing data, it is most likely that people who have one impairment and are not currently employed could move into the workforce as they tend to have a lower prevalence of employment restrictions compared to those with multiple impairments (SDAC 2003). Based on SDAC 2003 data, people with psychological disability had the lowest labour force participation rates and reported the highest rate of employment restriction.

Therefore, general workplace accommodation of people with psychological disability may need to be investigated.

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