OBJECTIVES: To examine changes in musculoskeletal complaints over four years in groups of employees relative to age and work demands. METHODS: Repeated questionnaire data of male employees in heavy physical work (exposed group, n = 7324) and mental work (control group, n = 4686), stratified for age (20-9, 30-9, 40-9, 50-9), were analysed. For each employee, data on the occurrence of musculoskeletal complaints from two surveys with a mean interval of around four years were available. Changes in prevalences over the follow up interval were analysed. Proportions of new, recovered, and chronic cases as well as those free of complaints at both surveys were studied. RESULTS: For most complaints, there were significantly greater increases in prevalences in the exposed group compared with the control group over the follow up interval particularly within the group aged 40-9 for back, neck, and several sites of the upper and lower limbs. The 20-9 year age group also had significantly greater changes for several musculoskeletal complaints. Within the oldest age group (50-9) exposure to heavy physical work demands only affected changes in prevalences of neck and upper arm complaints. After four years in the cohort free of complaints at the start of the follow up the group aged 40-9 had the highest prevalence of complaints of the back, neck, and the upper and lower limbs. CONCLUSIONS: Middle aged and younger employees develop musculoskeletal complaints as a result of exposure to heavy physical work. In the oldest age group health related selection seems to mask the occupational health risks under study. To prevent the expected increase in musculoskeletal disorders and related work disability in our aging workforce, preventive measures should be taken at all stages of a working life.