We all know that the Equality Act 2010 prohibits an employer from refusing to employ someone solely on the basis of their age but equally when there are accidents in the workplace such as the recent case where a bus crashed into a Coventry supermarket killing two passengers all of the press attention is focused on the age of the driver (77) and whether or not he was too old to be in charge of the bus. But is there any actual evidence to back up that the older we get the less safe we are in the workplace?
A Health and Safety laboratory review (www.hse.gov.uk/research/rrhtm/rr832.htm) found that older people are not more prone to injury just by reason of their age.
There is some evidence older people may cope less well with shift work. A report in 2006 for the HSE R446 reports on a laboratory simulation of a 12 hour rotating shift pattern comparing the response of different age groups it is worth noting that neither group was particularly old. The average age of the younger group was 21 and the average age of the older group was 44 however even within these groups the performance of the older one varied more between day and night than in the younger group. It suggests that if older people do have to work shifts health and safety problems can be minimised by a rotating shift system or permanently working regular hours i.e. less chop and changing.
Other HSE reports into performance find that perhaps contrary to popular belief, performance doesn’t decline with age at least up until the late 60s and that where older workers are more prone to injury this may arise from attitudes rather than actual infirmity. For example those who have been in the workforce for longer may become more complacent, underestimate hazards and be overconfident as regards risks compared to new workers who maybe more likely to flag up risks. (See HSE reports RR799 and RR156). Indeed there is some evidence from the US where a study looked into construction workers and found that actually older workers had fewer accidents but when they did have accidents they were more severe e.g. falls from ladders.
Also perhaps contrary to popular beliefs around memory and mental acuteness evidence suggests that cognitive performance continues to improve until at least age 60 and levels off before declining from age 70 (RR832) researchers are keen to point out that even where there is a decline in working memory and processing speed in laboratory studies, in real life in the workplace people continue to develop strategies to overcome any deficits where they occur e.g. writing things down to remind themselves.
When it comes to driving safely equally age is no predictor of driving performance the evidence suggests the over 65s have poorer visual acuity, contrast sensitivity, field of view and depth perception than those under 50 and their speed of decision making maybe slower but its more accurate the view is that older driving compensate for any cognitive or visual decline to greater experience, better route planning and more careful (slower driving).
Overall it seems there is little evidence in the literature that chronological age is a good indicator of health, cognitive, physical abilities, sickness absence rates, work related injuries or productivity it would not be reasonable for an employer to say that someone can’t do a job unless they can demonstrate it firstly by highlighting what characteristics may have deteriorated with age and that they are critical to the job, secondly proving that there has been some deterioration in the specific individuals abilities and thirdly that reasonable adjustments are not possible.
Further these studies suggest that employers perhaps ought to build into their risk assessments processes consideration of older workers as well as risk assessing for young workers, pregnant and new mothers. For example this might factor in things like the physical nature of any workload, hot cold and noisy environments, and shift working hazards but we need to be very careful not to make assumptions based purely on age most organisations can cite examples of people working well into their 70s and long may it continue.