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Working beyond 65: the health and safety impact

­The increase in the average age of the workforce is a trend that is anticipated to continue, and there are now more generations of workers in the workforce than before. Dr Helen Beers provides some evidence and observations.

 

At IOSH's conference in June, the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) presented a session on age, employment and the health and safety of the workforce. Delegate responses, along with evidence from other sources, indicate that organisations are thinking about the potential health and safety implications of an ageing workforce.

Researchers at HSL's Foresight Centre have identified that, currently, little is known about the health and safety consequences of work, and the work environment, on those workers aged over 65. However, from HSL's research, we know that the relationship between age and performance at work is not straightforward, and physical and mental declines do not necessarily impact on job performance.  Current evidence indicates that, in the vast majority of jobs, older workers can perform just as well, and be just as productive, as their younger counterparts. 

The ageing process is influenced by many factors, such as lifestyle. Hence, we all age differently and age should not just be considered in terms of a person's chronological age. The meaning of 'old' can vary greatly, and might depend on an organisation or occupation's demographic profile. In the UK, there is no formally agreed definition of 'older' worker, and the age range can be anywhere from 40 upwards.

We know that muscle strength and aerobic capacity begin to decline from around the age of 30, and there is some evidence that short-term memory and reaction times decline as age increases.    However, it is often only when something out of the ordinary happens at work that these declines may have more serious implications for health and safety.

What is new is that the trend for an ageing workforce is coinciding with other trends such as increases in work intensity, and changes in technology and patterns of work. It is influenced by factors such as economic conditions and industry needs. Some sectors, such as those employing engineers, are already reporting skills shortages, difficulties in recruiting people with the right skills, and a need to retain older and more experienced workers for longer.  In addition, there are now more generations in the workforce than ever before, along with an increase in combining work with caring responsibilities.

Up until recently, it is likely that those less capable of meeting the demands of their jobs would have already stopped working. Workers may have left jobs due to their health, or because they did not pass an occupational health assessment. This leaves mainly healthy workers in some workplaces.  

Whereas, people might previously have been expected to leave the workforce when they reached 65 they are now beginning to extend their working lives to meet the needs of business, the economy and also their own personal preferences. If it becomes the norm to work beyond the age of 65; if the option of retirement or part-time work is not available or appropriate, then this will result in people being exposed to occupational risks for longer than they have been in the past (i.e. there will be age-related inequalities in exposures at work).  

While current evidence indicates that declines in functioning do not necessarily impact on safe performance of work tasks, much of the data has been collected in laboratory environments. In addition, data on those aged over 65 has mainly been gathered from non-working people. This means that there are gaps in our knowledge and understanding about the 'real' workplace health and safety implications of declines in functioning and also about working beyond the age of 65.  

While we know a lot about ageing, there is still a need to continue developing insight, knowledge and understanding about the health and safety consequences of an ageing workforce and interactions between changes in the workplace and trends in the workforce.  

If 'aging workforce' is an issue where you are or to discuss HSL's research, email: helen.beers@hsl.gsi.gov.uk

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