Older workers are a growing part of the workforce. As people work for longer, management of OSH for an ageing workforce has become a priority.
Increasing employment levels and prolonging people’s working lives have been important objectives of national and European policies since the late 1990s. The EU-27 employment rate for people aged 55–64 years has increased from 40.5% in 2005 to 58.5% in 2018. This is still well below the employment rate of those aged 20–64 years, which stood at 72.6% in 2018.
The OSH Barometer data visualisation tool offers some key data on ageing workers and the workforce: median age, employment rate of different age groups, total and sex.
Normal age-related changes can be both positive and negative
Many attributes, such as wisdom, strategic thinking, holistic perception and the ability to deliberate, either increase or first emerge with increasing age. Work experience and expertise also accumulate with age.
But some functional capacities, mainly physical and sensory, decline as a result of the natural ageing process. Potential changes in functional capacities have to be taken into account in risk assessment (see below), and work and the work environment have to be modified to address those changes.
Age-related changes in functional capacity are not uniform because of individual differences in lifestyle, nutrition, fitness, genetic predisposition to illness, educational level, and work and other environments.
Older workers are not a homogeneous group; there can be considerable differences between individuals of the same age.
Ageing and work
Age-related decline affects mainly physical and sensory capacities, which are most relevant to heavy physical work. The shift from extractive and manufacturing industry towards services and knowledge-based industry, as well as increased automation and mechanisation of tasks and use of powered equipment, has reduced the need for heavy physical work.
In this new context, many abilities and skills associated with older people, such as good interpersonal skills, customer service and quality awareness, are increasingly valued.
Furthermore, many age-related changes are more relevant in some professional activities than in others. For example, changes in balance have an implication for fire-fighters and rescue personnel who work in extreme conditions, wearing heavy equipment and lifting and carrying people; a decreased ability to judge distances and the speed of moving objects has an implication for night-driving but does not affect office workers.
Age sensitive risk assessment
Age is just one aspect of a diverse workforce. Age-sensitive risk assessment means taking into account age-related characteristics of different age groups when assessing risks, including potential changes in functional capacities and health status.
Risks relevant to older workers in particular include:
- Heavy physical workload
- Hazards related to shift work
- Hot, cold or noisy work environments
As inter-individual differences increase with age, assumptions should not be made purely on the basis of age. The risk assessment should consider work demands in relation to the individual’s abilities and health status.
Promoting work ability and workplace health promotion
Work Ability is the balance between work and individual resources; when work and individual resources fit well together, work ability is good. The core factors affecting this are:
- Health and functional capabilities
- Education and competence
- Values, attitudes and motivation
- Work environment and community
- The content, demands and organisation of work
Work ability can be measured by the Work Ability Index. The work ability concept suggests that actions in the workplace to promote work ability should cover all these factors.
People’s health in later life is affected by their health behaviour earlier in life. Decline of functional capacities can be delayed and minimised by healthy lifestyle habits, such as regular exercise and healthy eating. The workplace has a key role to play in promoting a healthy lifestyle and supporting activities that prevent physical decline, thus help to maintain work ability. Workplace health promotion (WHP) covers a variety of topics including diet and nutrition, alcohol consumption, quitting smoking and getting enough exercise, recovery and sleep.
Adapting work and the work environment
Good workplace design benefits all age groups, including older workers. As abilities change, work also has to be changed to compensate, for example with:
- Job redesign or rotation
- More frequent short breaks
- Improved organisation of shift work, e.g. fast (2–3 days) forward-rotating shifts
- Good lighting and noise control
- Good ergonomic design of equipment
Policies on return to work
Long-term sickness can cause mental health issues, social exclusion and early exit from the labour market. Facilitating the return of workers after sickness is key to supporting the ageing workforce. Examples of initiatives taken to promote return to work in European countries include the creation of the ‘fit note’ instead of the sick note in the UK and a Return to Work intervention project in Denmark.