Safety and health at work in the context of an ageing workforce

OSH Professional

2: Healthy workplaces for all ages

Safety and health at work in the context of an ageing workforce

Legal obligation

Employers have a legal duty to ensure the safety and health of workers in every aspect related to the work. This includes assessing the risks to the safety and health of workers and adapting work to the individual.

The law also obliges employers to treat workers equally and prohibits discrimination based on age or . The 2010 Equality Act protects older people and disabled people from discrimination and employers have to make reasonable adjustments for disabled individuals and ensure that reasonable steps are taken to avoid disadvantage. 

However, with a view to ensuring full equality in practice, the principle of equal treatment does not prevent employers from adopting specific measures to prevent or compensate for disadvantages linked to age or . This includes measures to protect health and safety at work or aimed at promoting the integration of older people, or people with disabilities into the working environment.

Considering age and diversity in risk assessments

is the cornerstone of effective health and safety management. When carrying out risk assessments, it is important to take into account workforce diversity and pay special attention to workers who may be especially vulnerable: young workers, older workers, people with disabilities, women. In the UK , HSE and HSENI provide information on how to carry out risk assessments as well as consideration of vulnerable workers including older and younger workers.

Age is one aspect of diversity, and specific risk factors related to age need to be considered in risk assessments. In the case of young workers, risks include lack of experience, and for older workers, risks are related to potential changes in functional capacities.

Individuals vary greatly in terms of health and fitness and these differences increase with age, therefore assumptions must not be made purely based on age.

More about age-sensitive risk assessments can be found here.

Key points that should be considered in relation to risk assessments are:

  • Carry out or review risk assessments regularly;
  • Consider the tasks involved in specific jobs;
  • Corrective measures should be based on capabilities and objective risks rather than solely on age; and
  • Provide regular health checks to identify problems.

The following hazards, among others, need specific consideration in the case of older workers:

  • Ergonomic hazards, such as repetitive movements, manual handling, awkward, uncomfortable postures, static postures;
  • Shift work;
  • Hot, cold or noisy work environments, vibration; and
  • Working at height.

Issues to consider in the case of older women include:

  • Menopause (with symptoms such as fatigue, sleep disturbance, hot flushes); and 
  • Caring responsibilities (which can affect both male and female workers, but in practice tend to fall mostly on women. Care duties among the workforce rise with age, but are most common among workers aged 50 to 64 years).

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  • Obsolete skills, lack of training;
  • Age discrimination; and
  • Poor work-life balance due to caring responsibilities.

In the UK, HSE and HSENI provide information on managing stress at work and the use of the Management Standards for work related stress.

During risk assessments it is important to:

  • Involve workers’ representatives and workers, including older workers, to ensure that their needs and perspectives are considered;
  • Ensure that full-time, part-time and flexible workers are considered in the assessment;
  • Assess work tasks as they are being carried out (not just focus on job titles), to gain a more accurate perspective of actual behaviours and physical and mental loads experienced by the worker; and
  • Provide risk reduction measures that have an impact on all workers, including older workers.

In addition to , health surveillance checks  can provide valuable information, as it can indicate lapses in workplace control measures and help detect risk factors at an early stage. If individuals in the company are exposed to noise or vibration, solvents, dusts, fumes, biological agents, asbestos, lead, work with compressed air or ionizing radiation, health surveillance may be a requirement.

Adapting the workplace

Based on the , employers might need to make adjustments to match the changing capacities and health status of workers. Measures should be based on objective risks and workers' capabilities, rather than on their age.

In the UK Government Foresight review, it was highlighted that involving older employees as co-designers of workplaces changes is essential to gain evidence from them and acceptance of future designs.  

Examples of adaptations include:

  • Adapting existing equipment or providing new equipment to eliminate or reduce manual handling, repetitive and forceful movements, awkward postures;
  • Providing adjustable workstations to suit all users of all ages operating them;
  • Rotating tasks;
  • Automating routine or monotonous tasks;
  • Changing shift patterns; and
  • Adjusting lighting.

Workplace adaptations should be a dynamic and continuous process based on risk assessments throughout a person’s career. Good workplace design and work organisation benefits workers of all age groups.

Examples of good practices

Here you can read more about how age-related changes can impact a worker's functional capacities and how this can be addressed at work.

Holistic approach to occupational safety and health management and the concept

Managing occupational safety and health in the context of an ageing workforce requires a holistic approach, taking into account various factors that influence a person’s ability to work. The concept represents such an approach. Learn more about the concept here.