Last reviewed 15 December 2016

They say age is just a number but is that the case in the workplace? Beverly Coleman delves into the issue and considers what organisations can do to ensure that older workers continue to enjoy healthy working lives and maintain their skills and expertise.

Older workers are those aged 50 and older and by 2020 it is estimated that a third of workers in the UK will fit into this category. With life expectancy increasing, retirement periods will be lengthier requiring pension provisions to last much longer, unless those of retirement age choose to stay in the world of work. If not already doing so, employers need to respond by putting initiatives in place to retain older workers, creating sustainable jobs and safe working environments that take into consideration this dynamic group of employees.


The Equality Act 2010 is in place to protect workers from age discrimination and put a duty upon employers to make reasonable adjustments in order to help employees with health issues. This can include health issues related to ageing.

Although age is not explicitly mentioned in the Health and Safety at Work, etc Act 1974, risk assessment — which is at the heart of most regulations — should take into consideration the abilities of the worker undertaking a task, and these might be affected by age. The Manual Handling Operations Regulations 1992 have a small section on older workers and state that employers should take account of the requirements of older workers when designing tasks for them, but should not overlook the benefits of their judgment, experience and knowledge. Equally, the Workplace (Health, Safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 and Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) Regulations 1992 both touch on areas that would be relevant to older workers such as the provision of adequate lighting due to a deterioration of eyesight, or a change from manual handling due to loss of strength and flexibility — both effects of ageing.

What are the issues?

Many of the issues relating to older workers stem from preconceived ideas and myths. Negative stereotypes such as older workers being unable to learn new ways of working, being disinclined to adopt new technology and having constant health problems are not encouraging. There are plenty of benefits for recruiting and retaining those 50 and over. Older workers show more loyalty to their employer, have better interpersonal skills, increased ability to think strategically, greater experience and knowledge in the workplace and a better attitude to health and safety.

As with all workers regardless of age, there are negative issues that employers need to address. Change in working practices can unnerve everyone, however, the longer a worker has been with an organisation, the more difficult and stressful change can be. Older workers can be slower to adopt technological changes in the workplace that enable more efficient working. However, few older workers are unwilling to take on new technological or work challenges. This misconception can lead to older workers being overlooked when training opportunities arise, giving rise to a feeling of alienation and a gradual decline of interest in the job.

It cannot be denied that the older we get, the more susceptible we are to ill health. Age-related ill health can include the following.

  • Physical factors — musculoskeletal disorders, arthritis, osteoporosis, reduced muscle strength and grip, reduced height, reduced sensory abilities — sight, sound and smell, etc, reduced dexterity.

  • Psychological factors — cognitive impairments, reduced reaction times and memory problems.

Around 42% of 50 to 64-year-olds have at least one health condition and 24% have more than one, but keeping the mind and body active proves to be beneficial to health. Where better to do this than in the workplace?

Health, safety and wellbeing

Although older workers generally have fewer accidents at work, when accidents do occur recovery time can be longer. Task-specific risk assessments and a focus on accident prevention as part of an effective safety management system can ensure that workers of all ages can continue to work in environments that take into account their dynamics and capabilities. Continued training throughout an employee’s working life will keep them safe.

Age-related declines in health should not keep workers from enjoying a fulfilling work life. Employers should make reasonable adjustments to ensure workers can remain productive and continue working for as long as they wish. Reasonable adjustments may include:

  • adapting workstations to prevent overreaching and poor posture

  • changing shift patterns and offering flexible working

  • purchasing new equipment to reduce repetition and eliminate manual handling

  • adjusting lighting provisions within the working environment.

Looking at the effects of ageing on workers now will provide valuable insight into how the workplace needs to adapt to ensure it is suitable for not only today’s older workers but the younger workers that will eventually be tomorrow’s older workers.

Companies such as British DIY retailer B&Q, fast food chain McDonald’s and Lloyds Bank have initiatives in place to retain valuable older workers. Luxury car maker BMW even built a factory specifically for their older workers where they trialled exoskeleton chairs that improve posture and relieve strain on the body and most importantly, enable workers to continue to work without aggravating any ailments.

Useful information

There is a wealth of information available to guide employers on ensuring older workers are not discriminated against and can remain safe and well in the workplace. Online toolkits such as those created by the Age Action Alliance and EU-OSHA as part of this year’s European Week for Safety and Health at Work theme which focused on Health Workplaces for All Ages, highlight health and safety issues relating to an ageing workforce and the promotion of risk prevention not just in later years but throughout working life. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), Age UK and Acas also hold a vast amount of information, plenty of which can be used to educate the wider workforce and promote the benefits of an age-diverse workforce.

Employer guidance

Start with a conversation with older workers rather than assume that due to age they lack the capabilities to undertake work tasks. Where health issues are raised, work together with Human Resources to look for solutions. Risk assessments need to be reviewed periodically but consider the abilities of the workforce at time of review as well as any significant changes to the working environment or practices.

Take into consideration the types of work tasks undertaken by older workers and whether other types of jobs within the team or the wider organisation can benefit from their skills; remember this is to be by choice not by force. A conversation may reveal a much-needed skill that is yet to be utilised.

Older workers being more safety-conscious is a bonus to any organisation, so empowering and encouraging them to become safety champions will enable them to cascade their knowledge of safe practices to younger workers, a benefit to overall safety culture.

Guidance for older workers

Regardless of age, all employees have a duty to take care of themselves and that of others who may be affected by their actions. Where older workers have concerns about their ability to fulfil their role, the first step is to raise this with the employer.

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