There’s a short answer to this question. No, older people shouldn’t be a considered a health and safety risk even though the aging population in Europe is inevitably leading to changes in the workplace.
Yes, we’re seeing demographic shifts – by 2030, 55-64 year olds are expected to make up at least 30% of the workforce in many European countries. But with the right occupational health and safety, operational and well-being structures in place, these trends will actually benefit employers rather than introduce onerous risk management challenges.
Let’s investigate why by delving into the issues.
Issue 1 ‒ Are Older Workers More Vulnerable to Health & Safety Risks?
This is the underlying concern driving the debate on the issue of Europe's aging population – the idea that longer working lives can result in longer exposure to risks, and that older employees have specific health problems with implications for occupational health and safety.
There’s no doubt that different people are vulnerable to different risks. The question is whether age has an undue impact on the risk management dynamic compared to other factors. Generally speaking, it doesn’t.
Although older workers are more likely to suffer from chronic health problems (particularly cardiovascular and musculoskeletal), many issues are controllable and don’t necessarily affect performance if people have the right support. In fact, older workers have lower short-term absentee and turnover rates than younger ones. Their accident rate (where associated with more than three days of absence) is lower as well.
Business are taking very straightforward measures to mitigate the risks to older workers to help them maintain productivity and reduce sickness absence. For musculoskeletal issues, many companies offer regular medical screening and have processes in place for modifying workloads. These include helping with ergonomics in the workplace, such as arranging workstations, using technical aids and preventing repetitive work. Northumbrian Water’s RehabWorks programme offers rehabilitative interventions, giving staff access to physiotherapists as early as three days after reporting a problem, so they get quick treatment and help managing symptoms.
Issue 2 ‒ Does Performance Decline with Age?
Studies show that work performance is unlikely to be affected by age because older employers can generally compensate with experience, better judgement and job-specific insight. Intelligence, knowledge and use of language – all of which are important for a safe workplace – don’t usually show a marked decline until after 70, which is older than most people work. And that’s why it’s important to consider the benefits of an aging population in Europe.
Many industries are facing skills shortages, in part because falling employment levels are leading to smaller talent pools. This is particularly prevalent in professional roles like engineering and other STEM sectors, but it extends to areas like accountancy, hospitality and care as well. The Local Government Association estimates that by 2024 there will be a shortage of four million high-skilled people and a surplus of six million low-skilled workers in the UK.
Given the intense competition for talent and the need to support new entrants, older workers are a bedrock for employers. Older workers have the experience and expertise organizations need, plus they provide invaluable mentoring for younger colleagues. And businesses are reaping returns from investing in upskilling this segment. Barclays’ Bolder Apprentices scheme is a prime example, as are programmes at B&Q, Lloyds and National Express.
As a result, age isn’t the most important factor when it comes to performance and risk at work. Rather, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work recommends that employers look at ‘work ability’ – an individual’s resources in relation to the demands of their work.
Issue 3 ‒ How Do You Manage Health and Safety Risks for a Diverse Workforce?
This is the key question because organizations should not be looking at occupational health and safety through an age-related lens. Rather, they should be promoting healthy working practices holistically. Wellness is rising to the top of the corporate agenda, with major companies investing in programmes that deliver a return on investment by reducing sickness absence, improving productivity and boosting retention.
Companies with a high proportion of manual roles – like Scottish Power and Volvo – have introduced regular screening programmes to facilitate preventative health. Tesco tested giving companies wearable devices to promote awareness of fitness. Analytics company Dun & Bradstreet UK offers nutrition workshops. And Adidas has a health and wellbeing centre at its Stockport headquarters. Thousands of other companies are introducing cycle schemes, fitness classes, counselling services and in-house occupational therapy.
And the results are compelling. Investment bank Nomura, for example, calculated its wellness initiatives saved £3 million in lost productivity from 2015 to 2016.
The CIPD is championing the importance of wellness from the start to the end of the working life, encouraging employers to look at preventative and proactive approaches as well as reactive ones.
For example, do you monitor cumulative exposure to physical and chemical hazards? For more physical roles, do you review musculoskeletal risks based on individual capabilities? Do you offer flexible scheduling patterns that allow people to transition away from shift work or incorporate remote working as their circumstances change?
What about offering work-related stress support across different areas? Mental health issues affect workers of all ages and roles, just in different ways. What about your return-to-work processes? Does your approach support rehabilitation and encourage a return to optimum performance? Do staff have access to occupational therapists that recommend simple aids and adjustments to address changing requirements?
The key is to combine preventative measures (for example, using a behaviour-based safety solution to monitor safety performance and culture) with reactive ones (such as rehabilitation support and robust return-to-work processes).
These considerations benefit a trainee as much as an older worker. And when you take this holistic approach to well-being, quality and risk management, professionals are in a strong position to promote a culture of safety and wellbeing across the business – leading to better performance and employee engagement all round.
- Work performance is unlikely to be affected by age, and older workers actually have lower absentee and higher productivity rates than younger workers
- Organizations need older workers as they grapple with skills gaps and talent shortages
- Different employees are vulnerable to different risks, so it’s important to look at occupational health and safety considering various aspects of workforce diversity, not just age
- ‘Work ability’ – an individual’s resources in relation to the demands of their work is a better way to consider risk than age
How do you manage the needs of a diverse workforce? Get more tips on taking a holistic approach to risk management. Download The Risk Management Handbook: Supporting a Quality Culture Across Your Business