Skills shortages, falling birth rates, greater life expectancy, low unemployment levels and squeezed public finances are increasing job opportunities for older workers. They can bring valuable benefits to the workplace that offset slightly elevated health and safety risks, writes Jon Herbert.

Ageing workforce

Older workers are increasingly represented in the workplace. They often need to work for longer as the state pension age is progressively pushed back into later years; from 2020, men and women will both qualify at 66, increasing to 67 between 2026 and 2028, and linked to life expectancy thereafter.

A lack of experienced and competent candidates in the UK labour market is being translated into more job openings for what can be termed “vulnerable” workers, who may include migrant employees, new and expectant mothers, people with disabilities, plus young and older workers.

From an employer’s perspective, these prospective staff members regularly bring with them valuable workplace strengths, even though extra care over health and safety issues is usually necessary.

The law with regards to older workers

It is an employer’s duty to ensure, as far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety of all employees, irrespective of age. Employers must also provide adequate information, training and supervision for employees to work safely.

Under the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, employers must make an appropriate assessment of workplace health and safety risks to employees. This includes identifying groups of workers who might be particularly at risk such as older workers.

However, discrimination relating to age is different from all other forms of direct discrimination in that it can be justified if proportionate to a legitimate end. An example is considering changes to work needed to ensure that older workers can remain in the workforce.

Medical viewpoint

In its report Ageing and the Workplace, the British Medical Association (BMA) looked closely at issues occupational physicians face from both employers and employees as more people work beyond the age of 65.

The report says that while health can be an important employment determinant, other factors including emotional, personal and/or financial issues, plus self-esteem, companionship needs, family circumstances, and care and carer responsibilities also influence individual decisions.

Fewer younger workers in the workforce increases the need for longer working lives; as older workers become more commonplace, employers need to adapt to their needs, the report adds.

Attitudes are changing, with older employees increasingly seen as an asset rather than a disadvantage. However, some occupational health and safety issues, such as noise, are cumulative and need affirmative action in the workplace. Heavy physical tasks and long hours can have a significant impact, too.

Productivity requires a good fit between work demands, the working environment and bio-psychosocial needs. However, while older staff members are generally more affected by long-term health problems and chronic diseases, a majority of older people are healthy and manage fine at work, says the BMA report.

It adds that declining health or functional capacity has “minimal impact on job performance or safety”. In terms of cognitive decline, older employees compensate through experience, better judgment and job knowledge.

TUC viewpoint: the positive side of ageing

The Trades Union Congress notes that 1 in 6 workers is now over 65, a figure expected to reach 1 in 4 by 2033. It also comments that “ageing is not about decline but change”.

In its guidance publication, The Health and Safety of Older Workers, the TUC points out that no specific laws apply only to older workers, but employers have a broad duty to protect the health and safety of their whole workforce. That means a suitable risk assessment process with additional training if necessary. Employers must make sure they are meeting the needs of specific workers, or groups of workers, but a separate risk assessment for older staff is not required.

The guidance notes that research shows job performance and sickness rates are broadly similar across all age groups, a pattern that also applies to mental abilities and adaptability. Musculoskeletal disorders are more common, particularly in sectors such as construction or agriculture, but are “very preventable”.

The TUC also refers to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) which states that “mental growth is the success story of ageing”. It continues that strategic thinking, sharp-wittedness, considerateness, wisdom, the ability to deliberate and rationalise, holistic perception and language skills improve with age.

What can employers do for older workers?

The TUC’s recommendations are very much in line with kindred organisations such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Employers are encouraged to:

  • carry out risk assessments routinely, irrespective of age

  • assess and modify jobs and the workplace design where suitable

  • make adjustments based on individual and business needs, not age

  • modify tasks for people to work longer

  • allow staff to change working hours and job content.

It goes on to add that employers should:

  • not assume jobs are too demanding for older workers

  • encourage regular health checks

  • encourage health and fitness

  • keep up to date with legislative requirements

  • respond positively for work flexibility requests

  • make adjustments that help employees with specific health issues.

More specifically for older workers, the TUC suggests that employers:

  • ensure workstations and work activities meet the physical capabilities and limits of individual workers, avoiding repetitive twisting, stretching and bending (and, where hot-desking is involved, ensure that all chairs and screens are fully adjustable and staff know how to use them)

  • keep good injury and health records that identify any work concerns (“body-mapping”, in which workers indicate on an outline body where they are experiencing any soreness or pain, can be effective)

  • adapt workplaces to the needs of older workers in terms of lighting, heating, ergonomics, toilet and welfare facilities

  • consider part-time working, flexible working and home working options, plus other schedule variations

  • provide training which recognises that older workers learn differently and may respond better to practical or self-paced training

  • draw on the experience of older workers to mentor other workers

  • provide occupational health support for older workers with time off for health screening and medical appointments; early diagnosis and treatment can prevent conditions becoming worse (eg eye tests)

  • bear in mind that gender and age can affect issues such as stress, anxiety and depression.

Further information

Last reviewed 4 September 2019