Why are older workers more at risk in UK workplaces?

older worker at site

Posted on 20th Aug, 2019 | By Lorretta Tatham

Just last month, the British Health and Safety Executive released the latest statistics on fatal workplace accidents in the UK. Their recent report – which we covered here on the blog – contains several important findings, including the fact that falls from height, are still some of the most significant causes of death and injury in British workplaces.

What’s more, though, it notes that older workers are amongst the demographics most likely to suffer fatal injuries in the workplace. Specifically, 25% of fatal injuries in 2018/19 were to workers aged 60 or over, even though they only actually made up about 10% of the workforce. So why are older workers at greater risk of injury or death at work, and is there anything that employers could be doing?

The risks to older workers

Older workers are at greater risk of musculoskeletal disorders

While not a contributory factor to workplace fatalities as such, musculoskeletal disorders are certainly definitely a contributory factor to short and long term injuries. Years or decades of working in certain jobs or industries can eventually take a physical toll. A primary result of this is that muscles, tendons and ligaments can often be put under stress by overexertion or repetitive motion. (Work that involves vibration is a prime example of this). This can ultimately be serious enough to prevent those affected from working, and constitutes one of the most common reasons for people taking long term sick leave.

Older workers can be more vulnerable to this primarily because as we get older, we’re less able to put stress on our muscles and bones without sustaining injury. It’s one reason why activities like manual handling can become gradually more unsuitable for older workers, and why managers might want to think about finding alternative solutions or people for the job.

Slower reaction times, and reduced mobility

This is not as much of a problem as most people think (as we’ll cover in just a moment) but over the age of 70 to 75, reaction times can start to progressively and noticeably slow. This means that in high pressure or dangerous situations, split-second reaction times can sometimes be the difference between injury or coming out unscathed – even life or death. A flying abrasive wheel, for example, or a falling stack of crates are both examples of sudden dangers which can develop in a split-second. What’s more, even if someone sees the danger, they may not be able to physically move themselves out of harm’s way as quickly as younger colleagues, leaving them more vulnerable to injury in dangerous situations.

More dangerous accidents and longer recovery times

One quirk of older workers is that they actually tend to be more careful than their younger counterparts, a trait often born of their extensive experience in their chosen industry. They know the hazards well, and are more cautious and therefore less likely to take risks.

However, the flipside of this is that when they do have accidents, they’re often more serious, such as falling from ladders, and what’s more, they’re affected by longer recovery times than their younger colleagues, taking longer to bounce back from their injuries. Even simple slips, trips and falls can have more severe and lasting consequences than they might for younger employees, and these types of accidents especially are known to be a particular risk for older workers.

senior worker with yellow hard hat

Myths about older workers

While employers should bear the above in mind, there are also age-old stigmas and attitudes towards older workers which have been unsubstantiated or even demonstrably proven false. Employers have a duty to educate themselves on these before making any key operational decisions.

Mental capacities are not as much of a problem as they’re made out to be

While many employers assume that concentration and memory lapses are a problem as their employees age, research has demonstrated that this concern is often overestimated. In fact, mental capacity and concentration don’t start to see a significant decline until after the age of 70. Intelligence, general knowledge and use of language are all common symptoms by which this is judged, and older workers are shown to compensate for this by performing tasks safely with experience, better judgement and specific expertise.

Unfitness to work

62% of over 50s describe themselves as feeling as fit as ever, with structural and attitudinal barriers comprising their main barriers to progressing at work. And while it’s true that physical health is a factor that employers should pay attention to, it’s also important to balance this with the employee’s opinion of their own capabilities, and not limit their opportunities offhand.

With this in mind

Following directly on from that, one of the most commonly cited bits of advice is that Health and Safety concerns should be used to protect, not discriminate. It’s helpful for employers to educate themselves on the risks, before they start investing in ergonomically friendly workstations, or adjusting the layout of the workplace. They may wish to consult with the employees themselves, as they make decisions about whether to remove tasks like manual handling from their remit. The important thing is to balance their duty of care with not limiting the employee – people must be assessed in terms of individual risks and their history, not solely on the basis of their age.

It’s likely to become an even more relevant matter for employers of the future, as older employees are beginning to make up an increasingly larger proportion of the workforce. This is due to several factors, including increased life expectancy, the removal of the default retirement age, and the raising of the state pension age. This means that more and more people need (and indeed want) to continue working. Right now, 10 million people in the UK – about 1 in 6 – are over 65 years old, and this is projected to become 19 million – 1 in 4 – by 2050. They’re valuable resources to employers too; as we’ve touched upon, they can bring years of experience, specific expertise and skills to a role – it’s just a matter of putting them to their best use.

Here at Browns Safety, we’ve got a fantastic range of courses for you to put your employees on, no matter their age. This includes our Ladders and Access Equipment Course, helping them to avoid falls from height, the UK’s single biggest workplace killer. You can book your places on the course pages, or by giving us a call on 01254 615517. Your safety is our priority!

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