Is age only a number?
29 April 2013
A new report from the Health and Safety Laboratory (HSL) investigates whether the removal of the compulsory retirement age will have any implications for health and safety at work. Dr Helen Beers, one of the report's authors, summarises the findings
The removal of the compulsory retirement age, in October 2011, was partly responsible for prompting the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) to ask: "Are there any health and safety implications related to a post 65-year-old workforce?" and "Are employers able to judge whether workers have the functional capacity to work to the required level of safe performance?" A large body of literature exists on age and performance, and previous work, undertaken by HSL in 2011, had already identified that the relationship between age and performance is not a straightforward one.
(www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrpdf/rr832.pdf) In 2012 HSE commissioned a piece of work from HSL, which was to focus on performance in safety critical work, and to assess the existing evidence on age-related changes in performance.
The findings were believed to be of particular interest to major hazard and safety critical industries, where any deterioration in performance could potentially lead to an increase in the risk of major incidents or injury. This research also identified tools which could assist duty-holders to assess human function and performance.
Whilst there is evidence that as age increases some abilities do decline, this decline does not necessarily have a negative impact on performance at work. One reason for this is that adaptations to the workplace have been found to be highly effective in compensating for any declines in performance. Other reasons are that abilities are matched to job requirements and individuals use strategies, expertise, skills and experience to compensate for any declines in functioning.
One decline that has been suggested to have implications for performance, in conditions that are unfamiliar or outside of normal operating conditions, is speed of decision making. This could potentially lead to safety critical outcomes in situations where there is a high demand on the individual and they are unable to use their experience or expertise.
Evidence from the literature highlights how difficult it is to identify the real impact of age-related changes on performance at work, and thus to answer the question regarding the health and safety implications relating to a post 65-year-old workforce. One of the reasons for this is that many studies have been done in simulated laboratory conditions which do not fully represent the real world environment in which workers are required to perform. Another reason is that individuals may choose to leave a job, or be excluded following health screening. This potentially means that there is an age-related inequality in exposure to risk at work, and that any safety critical outcomes are avoided.
Future research It is clear from reviewing the evidence in the literature that more research is required on the performance of older workers. It is also advocated in the literature that there should be a move towards thinking about age in terms of 'diversity in work ability' as opposed to a chronological age cut off, and that a minimum standard for work ability capacity needs to be established for some occupations.
In order to begin to address the second question, regarding whether employers are able to judge if workers have the functional capacity to work to the required level of safe performance, HSL found that a range of tools and tests are available. However, further research is required in order to determine the extent to which they are able to assist duty-holders in assessing human function, capability and performance. Many of the tools and tests have been developed for very specific purposes and contexts, hence identifying the extent to which they can be used generically by duty-holders across all sectors and industries will require further work.
HSE is considering a number of proposals for future research during 2013. These include looking at industrial exposure limits and the relationship between reaction and decision-making times in relation to working after the age of 65.
One particular piece of work will look specifically at the agricultural industry as existing research indicates that older farm workers are more likely to be at risk of accidents than younger workers. It has been predicted that 60,000 new farmers or farm workers will be needed in the next decade causing a skill deficit. This of course could mean people in this industry are more likely to work after they are 65.
To read the full report 'Age related changes and safety critical work' visit: www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrpdf/rr946.pdf
Dr Helen Beers is a business manager/ principal scientist at the Health and Safety Laboratory