Today’s workforce is likely to contain an increasing proportion of older workers because of such factors as increased life expectancy, removal of the default retirement age and the raising of the state pension age. In this article, Gordon Tranter discusses factors may affect the activities older workers carry out, and how they should be considered as part of the overall risk assessment.

The employment of older workers

Changing demographics in the workplace mean that later life workers are now the fastest growing age group in the labour market. In 2012 it was estimated that during the following 10 years there would be a need to fill 13.5 million job vacancies, but only 7 million young people would leave school and college in that time.

In Fuller Working Lives: A Framework for Action, the Government pointed out that the expected creation of a significant number of new jobs in the UK economy, and the combination of more older people and more new jobs, mean that the labour market and the attitudes towards older workers must evolve to meet the challenge.

The pros and cons of employing older workers

There are many attributes, such as wisdom, strategic thinking, holistic perception and the ability to deliberate, that have been found to increase or emerge with increasing age. In addition, work experience and expertise generally also increase with age.

However, some functional capacities, mainly physical and sensory, decline as a result of the natural ageing process. It has to be emphasised that age-related changes in functional capacity are not uniform; they can be influenced by individual differences in lifestyle, nutrition, fitness, genetic predispositions, educational level, and work and other environments. Assumptions should not be made purely on the basis of age.

Legislation and older workers

Under the Equality Act 2010 it is unlawful to discriminate directly against anyone because of age. They cannot be treated less favourably than others because of their actual or perceived age unless it can be objectively justified. An employee cannot be compulsorily retired because of the effects of aging unless it can be objectively justified.

A separate risk assessment is not required specifically for older workers, however, the HSE in its guidance INDG163: Risk Assessment: A Brief Guide to Controlling risks in the Workplace, points out that the risk assessment should consider how employees might be harmed and that some workers may have particular requirements. The HSE points out that one of the groups of workers who might be particularly at risk could be older workers. Risk assessment should not make assumptions made purely on the basis of age but should consider work demands in relation to the individual’s abilities and health status.

The effects of ageing

As people age, physical capacities decrease and aspects of perception, thinking, reasoning, and remembering change. Experience, knowledge, social and coping skills increase with age.

Physical deterioration due to ageing can involve:

  • loss of muscular strength and lung capacity,

  • reduced height and increased body weight

  • the need for more time to recover from work

  • reduction of balance (postural and functional)

  • poor health and indicators of health problems, for example backache and sleeping difficulties

  • changes in sensory abilities, including vision and hearing change

  • heat intolerance which is not directly related to age, but is linked to changes in the cardiovascular system and chronic illness such as diabetes, which may cause reduced temperature control.

After the age of 60, however, there is a downward trend in health problems among working individuals, though this is may be due to the “healthy worker effect” — that is, individuals in poor health leave the labour market at a younger age than those in good health.

“Fluid” intelligence, the abilities which are not based on experience or education, tend to decline in older age. This is likely to decrease the ability to process complex information and to solve complex problems. However, these limitations in cognitive functioning and learning generally only become apparent after the age of 65, and often have few consequences for functioning at work.

In general, an individual’s performance remains stable throughout their working career. Performance may decline, owing to changes in physical health and cognitive capabilities, but it appears that many older workers compensate for these losses through their more extensive work experience and knowledge.

Occupational accidents and the older worker

There is little conclusive evidence that older workers have an increased risk of occupational accidents than younger workers. Older workers are generally less likely than younger workers to have occupational accidents, but accidents involving them are likely to result in more serious injuries, permanent disabilities or death, than those involving younger workers. Older workers may experience more slips, trips and falls than younger workers. Following an injury, the older worker may take longer to recover.

The age-sensitive risk assessment

A separate risk assessment is not required specifically for older workers, however, the overall risk assessment needs to be age-sensitive and take into account the age-related characteristics of different age groups. It should consider the needs of older workers and any changes needed to help those whose functional capacities change and those who develop health conditions or impairments to stay in work.

Although the differences between individuals can increase with age, the risk assessment should not make assumptions purely on the basis of age, but should consider work demands in relation to the individual’s abilities and health status. The functional age rather than “chronological age” should be used to indicate an individual’s ability to work.

Risks relevant to older workers

Risks relevant to older workers and the risk elimination or reduction methods required include the following.

  • Heavy physical workload: People’s physical characteristics and capacity change with age, although the extent to which this occurs varies considerably across individuals. The risk assessment should be an objective assessment of job requirements to consider whether physical job demands are too great. It should take into account the musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and respiratory systems, whether the ability and capacity of the individual worker meet the physical demands of the task, and whether workers have enough recovery time between tasks. Tasks that contain an element of manual handling should be designed in such a way that they eliminate or minimise the risk. Where the physical demands are too great, consider:

    • supporting the task with technology to absorb the physical strain

    • alternative lighter or less stressful work if available, with re-training if necessary provided.

    Older workers carrying out manual work can be subject to additional strain if they have to wear respiratory protective equipment (RPE). RPE that reduces breathing resistance should be considered for older workers.

  • Shift work: Excessive shift work may lead to the health of older workers deteriorating more rapidly than that of younger employees. Whereas the aging shift worker may cope, it is inadvisable to begin shift work at an older age. Women who work at night may be affected at an earlier age than men.

    To address these problems, it may be useful to consider:

    • giving older workers priority to transfer to day work

    • limiting night work, or stopping it entirely, for workers aged over 45–50

    • limiting exposure to night work for workers who are less physically able

    • shortening working hours and increasing rest periods

    • reducing the workload

    • arranging more frequent health checks

    • providing effective counselling on coping strategies, for example as sleep, diet, stress management and exercise.

  • Excessive overtime: There is some evidence to show that working excessive overtime in physically demanding jobs has an adverse effect on older workers

  • Heat tolerance: An individual’s tolerance to heat is not directly related to their age, but to their health and fitness. However, people with health problems such as diabetes may be less tolerant of heat. Consequently, it is important to control and minimise workers’ activities in extreme heat. Older workers who do hot-work should have their physical fitness and health regularly monitored. Guidance on hot-working is available in HSE’s INDG451: Heat stress in the workplace: A brief guide

  • Noisy workplaces: The ability to hear and distinguish sounds decreases with age. The noise reduction measures should be assessed to determine whether they are suitable for older workers. Where a worker does have a hearing problem, actions such as speaking a little more slowly and distinctly or encouraging them to wear a prescribed hearing aid can help. It may be necessary to consider an alternative warning system for fires or intrusion, such as flashing lights linked to the alarm system.

  • Cold weather working: Cold weather work, or cold-room work can cause an important, less obvious danger that can affect older workers. This is not just because of age itself, but because with age comes increased risk of chronic medical conditions, with arthritis and hypertension being the most common.

Training

An essential part of the risk assessment is determining what training is required. This should take into account that although speed of learning tends to slow with age, older workers can generally achieve a good standard in learning and performing new skills, given additional time and practice. The training requirements for older workers may be different and consequently the training procedures for older workers need to be carefully designed, for example self-paced training.

Older persons and chronic illnesses

As employees get older they may develop chronic illnesses, and their needs will need to be considered as part of the risk assessment. This will need a clear understanding of how the needs of workers with chronic illnesses may differ from other employees and how they can be catered for.

Occupational health services will often be able to help clarify the kind of conditions older people may experience and the different ways to support them. Employers worried about their older staff members can phone the Fit for Work advice line on 0800 032 6235 to get information and advice. A recent report by The Work Foundation, Living Long, Working Well: Supporting older workers with health conditions to remain active at work, recommend that Fit For Work should be developed with specialist awareness of and provision for the needs of older workers.

Conclusion

Older workers are now the fastest growing population of the workforce and play an increasingly vital role in the UK economy. This means that risk assessments need to be reviewed to take into account age-related conditions. This should be an integral part of providing older workers with a safe working environment that focuses on a healthy workplace, the availability of flexible working options, effective line-management and matching responsibilities to capabilities.

Last reviewed 29 February 2016