An Ageing Workforce

How does this affect Health and Safety?

Posted on: 10/03/2016   By: Lee Rance

We live in an ageing population, this is when the average age of a country rises due to rising life expectancy and/or declining fertility rates. People are living longer because they have more wealth than ever before, have better, more varied and reliable diets, medical care has improved and medicines have become more advanced.

Having an ageing population has positives and negatives. The positives are people are enjoying longer and healthier lives. Older people are working longer therefore their experience and knowledge are benefiting society. On the negative side the increasing number of very old people has put a strain on healthcare and social care services. The cost of state pensions are rising with more people claiming and for longer this in turn is forcing the Government to increase the retirement age for men and women in order to fund this.

Karen Beate Nøsterud -/ [CC BY 2.5 dk], via Wikimedia Commons

Karen Beate Nøsterud -/ [CC BY 2.5 dk], via Wikimedia Commons

With people working longer into old-age, how does this affect employer’s health and safety responsibilities?

Many attributes, such as wisdom, strategic thinking, holistic perception and the ability to deliberate, either increase or first emerge with increasing age. Work experience and expertise also accumulate with age. Many abilities and skills associated with older people, such as good interpersonal skills, customer service and quality awareness, are increasingly valued.

Age-related decline affects mainly physical and sensory capacities, which are most relevant to heavy physical work. The shift from extractive and manufacturing industry towards services and knowledge-based industry, as well as increased automation and mechanisation of tasks and use of powered equipment, has reduced the need for heavy physical work.

Age-related changes in functional capacity are not uniform because of individual differences in lifestyle, nutrition, fitness, genetic predisposition to illness, educational level, and work and other environments.

Employers now need to be carrying out age-sensitive risk assessments. This means taking into account age-related characteristics of different age groups when assessing risks, including potential changes in functional capacities and health status.

Risks relevant to older workers in particular include:

  • Heavy physical workload
  • Hazards related to shift work
  • Hot, cold or noisy work environments

As individual differences increase with age, assumptions should not be made purely on the basis of age. The risk assessment should consider work demands in relation to the individual’s abilities and health status.

Furthermore, many age-related changes are more relevant in some professional activities than in others. For example, changes in balance have an implication for fire-fighters and rescue personnel who work in extreme conditions, wearing heavy equipment and lifting and carrying people; a decreased ability to judge distances and the speed of moving objects has an implication for night-driving but does not affect office workers.

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

Older workers bring a broad range of skills and experience to the workplace and often have better judgement and job knowledge, so looking after their health and safety makes good business sense.

Until next time.

Lee Rance