Health & Safety Issues in an Ageing Workforce
|Frequently Asked Questions
|What is the new minimum wage? How many hours can a member of staff work? Do I have to give Public Holidays as time off.....morexx
|BackupHR Instant Briefing...
Most employers can suspend an employee from work on full pay and benefits in cases of suspected gross misconduct.
-- Read more...
|We work with you, the way you want to. Our Support Service is a complete solution for your HR.... more
|Health and Safety
|Many clients also take our professional Health & Safety service, delivered by fully trained and...more
The removal of the Default Retirement Age conjures up the prospect for some people of doddery old folks creating hazards for themselves, or others, and a consequent increase in accidents at work. This stereotyping is unlikely to be generally true but what is the reality?
It should be stressed that health and safety legislation applies to all regardless of age. It is unlawful to discriminate against young workers, as well as against older workers, and stereotypes are not helpful in how we perceive age. Health and safety can sometimes be used as a dubious excuse for not employing or getting rid of older workers, as some employers think that older workers are less capable and more likely to have accidents or take more time off work sick.
• Age is not a good indicator of any individual's actual capacity to work. Some cognitive functions, such as memory abilities, are thought to deteriorate with age but in the case of mental capacity this does not begin to happen until people are in their 70's. However, decline with increasing age is not inevitable and any loss of speed etc. can often be compensated with other skills. Physical strength and endurance is very specific to individuals and can be influenced by factors specific to the person, rather than the ageing process itself.
• We all age yet everyone ages differently. Changes in a person's body can often be compensated for by better judgement based on experience. Any deterioration expected with age is much smaller than the range of differences that exist across the entire workforce. An older worker whose eyesight and physical strength are not what they were might still be fitter and more capable than that of a teenager.
• Poor workplace design and inflexible working practices are more likely than age to prevent staff from being fully effective. Physical demands from work can often be minimised through changes in work design or use of equipment. Manual handling can, properly managed, be undertaken with minimal risk, just by using the correct work methods, staffing levels and lifting aids.
• Older workers may be more conventional and have less desire to lead and to achieve career goals but this is often countered by their conscientious, emotional stability, better social skills and older workers can be more adept at dealing with customers varied needs.
• Older workers tend to have fewer accidents and lower levels of short-term sickness.
• Those older workers who do develop long-term sickness tend to self-select to leave the labour market altogether.
Risk assessments are an important step in protecting your workforce, as well as complying with the law. These should be done routinely, not just when an employee reaches a certain age. There are specific risks faced by older workers in the workplace which should be taken account of in their risk assessment. As the CIPD Report, Managing Age - 2006 says "Early identification of health and safety risks can enable employers to make small adjustments to prevent disabilities that can lead to early exit from work". There is no 'one size fits all' solution when thinking about how to support older workers. It is 'risky' to assume that certain jobs are too demanding for older workers, decisions must be made on capability and objective risk - not age.
Managers should be carrying out health and safety workplace assessments, taking account of the needs of workers of all ages. They should be assessing the activities involved in jobs and modifying workplace design if necessary. This may also mean reviewing job descriptions, person specifications and training plans. The reality is often that persistently unmet training needs may be misunderstood as decreasing work ability.
To manage potential risks, simple measures can include:
• assessing whether heavy lifting is really necessary for a particular job
• adapting workstation layout to minimise repetitive movement
• adjusting lighting and temperature
Changes like this should benefit all employees, not just older workers.
Within your organisation, review your health and safety and other policies and promote sensible working practices for employees of all ages. Age should not be an excuse to fail to train older people, so ensure that employees are not being denied safety or vocational training because of their age. Payment schemes based on productivity should not lead to unhealthy work rates, or work patterns and speeds that disadvantage older staff. Career structures should allow older workers to move away from work that is a particular risk for them as they get older to work that uses their skills, experience and capabilities.
The impact of health problems related to ageing, for example hearing loss and osteoarthritis, can be minimised if health and safety laws and rules e.g. excessive working hours are properly recognised, followed by minimising any work-related component or exacerbation of those or other conditions.
A new emphasis on occupational health, integrated into board level strategy decisions, will be increasingly necessary to ensure long-term health problems caused by work are not treated as 'tomorrow’s problem'. Occupational Health providers can make a real difference to helping you manage the health and attendance of all your workers, not just the older ones.
Communication and Consultation
Make sure you communicate your policies to all staff and consult with them, especially if you are making changes.
Use your regular formal or informal discussions to engage with individuals openly about any health and safety issues they may have. ACAS recommend periodic 'Workplace Discussions' with all employees partly as an opportunity to discuss future plans but you should be using them to openly discuss health and safety. This could be about your concerns about them but also their concerns about the job and the working environment. Remember the law also covers welfare and this is an ideal opportunity to cover it.
Older people are slightly more likely to be or become 'disabled' and might therefore come within the remit of the Equality Act and its requirements to make reasonable adjustments to the job, workstation or workplace. Whether they are legally 'disabled' or not there is no good reason why you should not be making adjustments which can easily help people to continue to do a productive job. Such adjustments might also include some sort of flexible working which again could well suit both parties. Making adjustments does not come easily to some employers as it requires imagination and commitment but it is a good idea in its own right and it may well prevent health & safety issues and or an age discrimination claim at Tribunal. Again, using a good Occupational Health provider may be hugely helpful in understanding the medical problems and in suggesting workable solutions.
Do not forget that wherever young people (above school leaving age and under 18) are employed they are protected to at least the same level as adults. Young people also have additional protection because health and safety law recognises that they may be vulnerable because of a lack of awareness of risk and may lack experience or physical maturity. It may seem incongruous to give them special protection but they need it.
Research on ageing and work in Europe concluded that the four most effective positive interventions to keep older worker productively in the workforce are:
• Educating line management on the needs of older workers.
• Reducing repetitive movements.
• Tailored training in new technology.
• Increasing vigorous exercise (particularly in leisure time). Employers can support older workers remaining fit and healthy by providing time, resources and access to facilities for participation in healthy activities inside and outside the workplace.
The results are better if several actions are integrated. The consequences of improved work ability can be measured as better productivity and quality of work and the better well-being and life quality of ageing workers.
If you want to be able to justify that someone's health has deteriorated as they have got older, such that they can no longer do the job for which they were previously employed then without a documentary trail of fitness requirements (physical and/or mental) you will be in difficulty. These requirements should be clearly stated in relevant risk assessments, job descriptions and person specifications. Without this, any employer that just tells an employee that they can no longer do their job "for health & safety reasons" is going to have a very difficult time objectively justifying such a decision, when faced with a potential claim of unfair dismissal and age discrimination.