Keeping Older Workers Safe and Well

Posted in : HR Updates on 17 September 2012
Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services
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As workforces age, the nature of risk assessments must change to reflect the risks faced by older workers, writes Stephen Thomas, Safety Technical Consultant at Croner, a Wolters Kluwer business.

There are three main factors behind the need for employers to consider the health and safety implications of an older workforce.

  1. The population is aging owing to demographic changes.
  2. Fewer young people possess the skills required.
  3. Employers can no longer issue notifications of retirement based upon a default retirement age.

Older Workers and Ill-Health

According to The Health, Safety and Health Promotion Needs of Older Workers: An Evidence-based Review and Guidance, a report submitted to the IOSH Research Committee: “Although older workers are at a reduced risk of accidents, they are more at risk of fatal accidents. Ill health data show that although there is an increased risk of developing disease with age, many chronic diseases can be controlled and adjustments put in place in the work environment.”

The report, which systematically screened and reviewed 179 relevant publications, concluded that:

  • for physical factors there are age-related changes but also large inter-individual differences
  • although there are age-related reductions in aerobic capacity and stature and increases in body mass index, all of these can be improved by increased physical activity
  • muscle strength was found to reduce with age, but can be improved by training
  • an increased need for recovery was identified in older workers along with higher rates for musculoskeletal disorders — however, this is not a straightforward relationship as age is also associated with longer duration of exposure to occupational risk factors
  • age was found to impair balance, although this effect can be mitigated through training
  • age is not the main predictor of thermal intolerance, but intolerance is related to changes in the cardiovascular system and may also result from diabetes
  • psychological changes related to age include: reduced reaction time, increased accuracy and increased accumulated knowledge and experience.

Risk Assessment

When carrying out risk assessments, it is important to pay special attention to vulnerable people, and this includes older workers. Specific risk factors include hearing loss, reduced vision and dexterity.

Therefore, it is essential that these physical and psychological effects are considered when the risk assessment is carried out in order that the necessary control measures can be identified and implemented. For example, older workers may need to be considered when carrying out manual handling assessments.

Managing the Risks

The Department for Work and Pensions publication Health and Safety and Ergonomics: Age Positive Guide suggests that an employer’s health and safety policy should be reviewed to ensure that any potentially hazardous ageist practices are removed and that sensible working practices for employees of all ages are promoted.


Employers need to make reasonable adjustments in order to protect older workers. These might include changing shift patterns or adapting workstations to ensure they are adjustable for the age range.

Health Promotion

As older workers are more likely to be dealing with long-term or chronic conditions, employers are likely to gain from health promotion programmes addressing diet, smoking and alcohol. Such measures include medical check-ups, cholesterol testing, dietary advice and flu vaccinations. Larger organisations may also consider the provision of in-house physiotherapists, mental health nurses and trauma consultants to provide on-site massage, chiropody services and hypnotherapy.

Accident Prevention

  • As older workers are more likely to experience strains and sprains or falls, interventions should focus on manual handling training, minimisation of obstructions and installation of non-slip flooring.
  • There are specific risks faced by older workers that must be taken account of in risk assessment. Although there is no one simple solution with regard to protecting older workers, the following points may prove helpful:
  • Risk assessments must consider factors related to the age of employees and be reviewed regularly.
  • The assessments should consider the activities involved in specific jobs and modify the workplace design where necessary.
  • Where tasks are modified to help people stay in work longer, appropriate retraining must be provided.
  • Where possible, staff should be able to change their work hours and job content.
  • Decisions should be based on employee capability and objective risk, rather than purely on age.
  • Regular health checks should be provided or encouraged.
  • Employees should be persuaded to take an active interest in their health and fitness.
This article is correct at 09/11/2015

The information in this article is provided as part of Legal-Island's Employment Law Hub. We regret we are not able to respond to requests for specific legal or HR queries and recommend that professional advice is obtained before relying on information supplied anywhere within this article.

Helen O'Brien
Personnel and Training Services

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