EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Health risks of physically strenuous work

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Working conditions in certain sectors can lead to serious health problems among employees. Among those working in physically strenuous jobs, these problems manifest themselves in higher invalidity rates and a lower life expectancy. In light of recent pension reforms in Europe, which aim at raising the retirement age, the findings of a study on the construction industry are particularly relevant.

In Austria and other European countries, pension reforms introduced in the past few years are aimed at raising the retirement age. However, increasing the number of years in service poses a problem, especially for workers in physically strenuous jobs, as many of them are unable to work up to the age of 65 due to serious health problems.

The Austrian Chamber of Labour (in German) and the Austrian construction workers’ union commissioned a study on the situation in the construction industry, covering the following aspects: the connection between working conditions, health risks and life expectancy; and retirement age and type of retirement (invalidity, old age retirement). The study was carried out by the Austrian Institute of Economic Research, and is based on data analysis (source: Main Association of Austrian Security Institutions - in German) and on secondary data collection. The main focus is on Austria but, in cases where no specific data for Austria were available, the study refers to Swiss and German studies to support the arguments and theses.

Accident risks and costs in construction sector

Construction work remains a physically strenuous industrial sector, with the highest rate of accident risk: in 2002, an incidence rate 2.3 times higher (90) than the total average (39) was reported. The sector also suffers from a high number of sick leave days (20.5 days per year and worker). This means that construction workers are not only more frequently ill than other workers, but also that the duration of the illness is longer. Another aspect is the high invalidity rate among construction workers: more than 60% of people retiring in the sector do so because of ill health.

The study examines the connection between working conditions and health costs. These costs amounted to between 4% and 9% of the sector’s economic contribution to Austria’s gross domestic product (GDP). The effects of the Health and Safety at Work Act of 1995 show that health and safety risk prevention brings significant economic benefits. Since 1995, the accident rate in the construction industry has dropped from 130 accidents (per 1,000 employees) in 1995 to 99 accidents in 2003.

Age of and reasons for retirement

A crucial factor, which illustrates the long-term health consequences of physically strenuous work, is the age and form of retirement. In the construction sector, the invalidity rate is high and the actual retirement age is low. In 2002, invalidity accounted for three out of five (62%) of all retirements among blue-collar workers in the construction industry, and the average retirement age is 56.9 years.

It is important to note that the average age of actually ending employment among these blue-collar workers is 55.4 years, a year less than their actual retirement age. Thus, the study shows a substantial difference between blue and white-collar workers: nearly 60% of white-collar workers move directly from employment to retirement, whereas this is the case for only 40% of blue-collar workers. Where there is no direct transition from employment to retirement, unemployment and sick leave fill the interim period.

Life expectancy

With regard to the connection between working conditions and life expectancy, data are not provided for Austria by occupation or sector, but by educational level. The risk of death during the prime employment age period (35-64 years) among employees with only basic school level education is twice that of university graduates; in the 65-89 age group, the difference declines to 47%.

However, the study also refers to data from Switzerland, comparing mortality rates by occupation. These data indicate that occupations in physically strenuous work sectors show a clearly higher mortality compared with the average (e.g. occupations in the construction industry 51.2%, forestry 48%, wood-processing industry 35%); architects, engineers, doctors and teachers, on the other hand, show a mortality rate far below the average (see Table).

Comparative mortality rates, by profession, in Switzerland (average = 100)
Comparative mortality rates, by profession, in Switzerland
Occupational category Occupational group Comparative mortality
Agriculture Occupations in forestry 148.6
Construction Other occupations in the construction industry 151.2
Construction and building construction labourers 148.3
Stone, earth and glass processing 125.4
Textile, paper andchemical industries Textile manufacture 122.9
Wood processing Other occupations in the wood-processing industry 134.7
Metal and machinery industry Watch making 129.2
Technical professions Technicians 75.4
Machine operators, auxiliary technical occupations 74.8
Transport and Communications Communications 77.4
Commerce Accountants 61.6
Academics and professionals Architects, engineers 75.7
Medical doctors 63.2
Teaching, education 62.5
Clergy/Religious professionals 59.8

Source: Künzler, 2002, S.29

One of the main methodological problems is separating the influence of other factors, such as nutritional habits, health awareness, etc. Although the study could not solve this problem, it does provide some evidence that, in sectors with physically strenuous work, the rise of the legal retirement age, as set out in pension reforms, will create difficulties for many workers. Unless pension reforms consider special arrangements for workers in physically strenuous jobs and focus on ensuring sustainable work, they will worsen existing social inequalities based on inequitable working conditions.


Guger, A., Huemer, U. and Mahringer, H., Physically strenuous work: Economic costs and life expectancy. Retirement and the labour market situation - the example of the construction industry , 2004, (in German)

Künzler, G., Arme sterben früher: Soziale Schicht, Mortalität und Rentenalterspolitik in der Schweiz , Caritas, Luzern, 2002.

Moser, P. et al, Muss Arbeit die Gesundheit kosten? Eine Studie über die Gesundheitsgefahren am Bau und deren volkswirtschaftliche Kosten, Studie des SRZ Stadt Regionalforschung Ges.m.b.H. im Auftrag der Gewerkschaft Bau-Holz und der Bundesarbeitskammer , ÖGB, 1999.

Manfred Krenn

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