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
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
If 'aging workforce' is an issue where you are or to discuss
HSL's research, email: firstname.lastname@example.org