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December 5, 2014

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Protecting the older workforce

arthritic hands of an old  man

Changes in the pension age and an ageing population mean that employers will need to put in place health and safety age management strategies to protect the older workforce. Carolyn Drake, Roger Haslam and Cheryl Haslam report.

According to the World Health Organization, the world population is ageing rapidly. [1] Life expectancy is increasing and birth rates are decreasing. In the United Kingdom in 2012, 35 per cent of the total population was over 50 years of age and the projected figures are set to increase to 38 per cent in 2021 and 41 per cent in 2041. [2]

The challenge faced by national policies is how to adapt to an ageing population. The government announced increases in the state pension age and mandatory retirement age has been removed. This will have a knock-on effect on employers and unless they examine the consequences of an ageing workforce and respond appropriately they may face increased injuries and reduced productivity.

Age-related changes and work

With an increase in the overall age of the workforce, employers will be presented with health and safety opportunities as well as challenges. Older workers may experience various age-related changes i.e. increased weight; reduced flexibility, mobility and strength; deteriorating vision and hearing; possible reduction in cognitive abilities and, in some cases, health complaints.

Although older workers can compensate for some age-related declines in their capabilities, it is important that employers have management strategies in place to protect their older workforce from increased risks to their health and safety. While it is acknowledged that older workers must meet job requirements, it is also necessary to have contingency plans in place should their reduced capabilities exceed their work demands.

Reviewing UK statistics for the last 
three years, the highest incidence rate of occupational fatalities was the over-65 age group, with the highest major occupational injury incident rate being the 60-to-64-age-group. [3]

It is recognised that older workers have
 a wealth of knowledge and skills to bring
 to the workplace. However, negative perceptions regarding ageing and negative stereotypes about older workers’ ability and performance are detrimental and can result in many leaving the workforce.

According to a Eurobarometer survey, many Europeans still think that conditions in their workplace may not allow them to continue working. [4] There is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ strategy, as different sectors might face different challenges.

Loughborough study

Table articleAs part of a wider programme of research, Loughborough University conducted a qualitative study between March and
 May 2014 to understand what employers perceive as the barriers and facilitators to the implementation of health and safety age-management strategies for over 50 year olds. Senior personnel with health and safety responsibilities (n=41) were interviewed from different size organisations across 13 sectors (see table, right). A number of interesting findings emerged from the study.

Employers’ perceptions of older workers

Eighty three per cent of respondents recognised that they may see a higher proportion of older workers in their organisation within the next five-to-
ten years. While 100 per cent of the respondents interviewed stated that older workers bring health and safety benefits to the workplace, providing a wealth of experience and knowledge, just over half then commented about possible negative concerns.

Leaders need to dispel the myths surrounding older workers because 
they do offer many benefits to the work environment. Looking after the older worker’s health and safety and viewing them as an asset would certainly be a positive business decision. [5] Extensive research undertaken in the automotive sector found that team performance improved when the average age of the employees increased. [6]

Reporting culture

One significant factor that was considered to be a barrier to good health and safety practices was the ineffectiveness of 
the organisation’s reporting culture. Representatives from 66 per cent of organisations believed that their reporting culture had not reached a mature enough state where employees felt that they could openly volunteer information regarding any changing capabilities and health and safety issues they may be experiencing.

Some of the comments received as to why employees were unwilling to talk about potential changing capabilities were related to ‘fear of consequences’. There was also concern that due to employees ‘hiding’ their problems, they may inadvertently put everyone at risk. If managers are not capturing this information, they will be unable to assess different capabilities and provide task adjustments or other interventions when necessary.

Changing capabilities

Changing capabilities (physical, mental and health) were seen as both a consequence and a concern arising with an ageing workforce. For those organisations that had experienced employees with changing capabilities, if they had been unable to implement adjustments, they reported they had offered redeployment. For others, the older worker had chosen to leave. However, as the workforce ages and organisations see their older worker numbers increase these options may not be viable.

Occupational health/promotion

The results show that organisations
 rely heavily on occupational health. Respondents felt their occupational health was predominantly reactive. They believe that they will see increased absenteeism as a result of general health declines in older workers and their occupational health teams will be involved in more reactive health issues i.e. knee problems, bad backs, cancers and cardiovascular problems.

Of the 41 per cent of organisations that had already completed an age-management control action of some form, 39 per cent 
of these organisations had implemented additional health surveillance adjustments as their employees age.

However, health surveillance intervals varied greatly and not all employees were selected to receive health checks. Early identification of 
issues would certainly provide valuable information for organisations and would be relatively easy to implement, as previous research has found older workers see the positive benefits of having health checks. [7]

Discrimination and guidance

Some organisations indicated they are unsure how to proceed with implementing health and safety age-management strategies for fear of age discrimination.
 It would seem that ‘age-management’ and ‘age-awareness’ fall into both health and safety and a HR remit and there appears
 to be difficulties with coordination as to how to proceed.

During discussions it was mentioned that if HSE provided more guidance, this would help give employers and health and safety professionals a better foundation on which to base their health and safety age-management strategies.

Currently, there seems to be a lack of knowledge regarding the Equality Act. This legislation refers to objective justification, which allows employers to directly discriminate against age providing it contributes to a legitimate aim and there is no reasonable alternative. A legitimate aim might include health, safety and welfare protection of the older worker, or where the employer believes people need to be treated differently to achieve business needs.


When respondents were asked if they provided any specific age-related training, overwhelmingly 93 per cent of respondents said no. Age-awareness training might benefit all employees. Not only would training help managers and supervisors recognise any changing capabilities, but they would also be aware of what behaviour is perceived as age discriminatory, thus enabling health and safety plans to be implemented that are compliant with the Equality Act while keeping employees safe and healthy.

General age-awareness training would also help tackle some of the negative stereotypes of the older worker. The 
older worker themselves would feel more engaged in the organisation and more likely to report any changing capability issues as they will feel more confident about how their personal issue would be managed.

Succession planning 
and knowledge transfer

For many organisations succession planning was problematic. The short-notice period that some employees give when they decide to retire can cause organisations problems, not only in timely recruitment, but also in trying to capture and transfer any relevant health and safety knowledge.

Although some organisations use various methods to capture knowledge, overwhelmingly there is a reliance on informal knowledge sharing, but this raises concerns about the extent and quality
of the health and safety information communicated.


Some respondents commented that due
 to an ageing workforce their organisation may face additional financial cost due to higher absenteeism, loss of contracts due to reduced productivity, or inability to recoup training investment.

Going forward

Job demands, work environments and capability requirements should be assessed, so that employers have an understanding of any tasks that could become a burden. However, functional capacity can show considerable difference across the older worker, therefore merely quoting a chronological age is not appropriate.

While much has been written about
 the older worker, ageing changes and the interaction with the work environment, there appears to be limited action regarding health and safety age-management and the older worker in practice.

Loughborough University’s study explored employers’ perception of an ageing workforce and found that there are both facilitators and barriers to health and safety age-management strategies. Further investigation will now be undertaken 
to understand employees’ experiences 
and opinions of the health and safety age management strategy barriers identified by employers.



1. World Health Organization (2012) general information

2. Office for National Statistics (ONS), 2013. 2012-based National Population Projections.

3. HSE, 2014. RIDAGEGEN1- 2012/13 ‘Reported injuries to male employees in Great Britain by age of injured person and severity of injury’, 2012/13p

4. European Commission, 2011. ‘Active Ageing – Special Eurobarometer’ 378

5. HSE, 2014. ‘Vulnerable workers’.

6. Streb C; Gellert F J (2011): ‘What do we know about managing aging teams? Lessons learned from the automotive shop floor’. Organizational Dynamics, 40, 144 – 150.

7. Crawford J; Graveling R; Cowie H;
Dixon K (2010): ‘The health safety and health promotion needs of older workers’. Occupational Medicine, 60, 184-192.

This article draws on the findings from Carolyn Drake’s PhD, to be published at the end of 2016. The research looks at the consequences for health and safety of an ageing workforce.

Carolyn Drake is a PhD student, Roger Haslam is Professor of Ergonomics and Human Factors and Cheryl Haslam is Professor of Health Psychology at Loughborough University


SHP asked three industry experts for their views on the following question around the ageing workforce:

The UK’s workforce is ageing but are employers ready for this seismic change? What barriers do you see for the older workforce and what do you think employers need to do to reap the benefits that the older worker offers?

“As the average age of the  population rises, the UK government is under pressure to keep older workers in the labour market longer, manifest in reforms to pension and labour market policies to raise retirement age.

“However, an increasingly ageing workforce throws new challenges regarding the design of work and work systems to accommodate this changing demographic. The professional, chartered body of ergonomists in the UK  can help with this challenge but engagement with industry on this issue has been, to date, somewhat limited.

“We also need much more research on issues pertinent to older workers, for example the effects of health on work, reducing sickness absence and presenteeism, and management of workers with chronic ill health at work.”

Professor Peter Buckle, Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design, the Royal College of Art


“Employers are generally aware of the benefits of older workers (e.g. broad skills and experience), although tend to respond to ageing issues in a reactive rather than strategic way.

“We know that the UK’s ageing workforce has potential consequences for the economy, yet know less about the health and safety consequence of an ageing workforce.

“Attitudes about age and perceptions about declines in physical and mental abilities may act as barriers to older workers employment, yet declines do not necessarily have a negative impact on performance at work.  Everyone ages differently. There is no one size fits all solution to reaping benefits from employing older workers.

“Regardless of the age of the worker, risk assessments should be routinely reviewed, reasonable adjustments made, and the demands of the job matched to the capability of the worker. One way in which employers might retain the knowledge and experience of older workers is by offering flexible working.”

Dr Helen Beers is principal psychologist at the Health and Safety Laboratory’s Foresight Centre


 “Given the short-term pressures on managers, most are probably not ready for this seismic change. Apart from irrational prejudice, the main barriers are obesity, with its associated health problems, particularly diabetes and concomitant blood vessel damage; tobacco smoking, and the unnecessary medicalisation of aspects of senescence, exposing people to the medication side-effects and excessive investigation.

“What employers need to realise is the importance of communicating with employees, remembering the adage, ‘you have two ears and one tongue – use them in that ratio’ and heeding the opinions of health and safety advisers.

“The ‘healthy worker effect’ still operates, even during ageing, so the most unfit will tend to drop out of the workforce. Older employers have a wealth of experience – they’ve been there, done it and got the t-shirt. Adjustments may be surprisingly cheap and represent good value for money.”

Chris Ide is a consultant physician in occupational medicine


SHP would like to make clear that the views expressed in the article above are those of the authors and do not reflect those of the three industry experts.

We would be interested in other readers’ views. Please leave your comments below



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