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Health and safety and our ageing population

It is no secret that Britons are living and working longer. For many people the concept of 'old age' is a thing of the past, as their later years throw up ample opportunity for them to live more active and fulfilling lives – but this also creates a series of challenges that must be met by employers.

Figures published last year by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) revealed that life expectancy, at birth in the UK, had reached its highest level on record, for both males and females. If mortality rates continue as they were in 2007–09, a newborn baby boy in the UK could expect to live 77.7 years and a newborn baby girl 81.9 years, the ONS said.

According to the results of a poll by pensions firm Aegon, more than half (56 per cent) of people aged between 50 and 65 plan to continue to work during pensionable age.

"Gone are the days when you reached 65, got your carriage clock and settled in for a sedate retirement," said Mark Locke, a spokesman for the firm. "People are living far more active lives."

As a direct result of the recession and inadequate pensions savings, more than two thirds of UK retirees are working, consider returning to work or extending their hours of work, according to a survey from technology firm 1st – The Exchange.

Its poll of 2,000 people in retirement age revealed that 53 per cent are already working full or part time in order to supplement their pension, with 17 per cent considering returning to work.

In 2005, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) called on businesses to embrace the valuable resources that older workers can offer them.

The OECD called for age-friendly employment policies that will encourage older people to remain longer in the workforce.

Indeed, there is no reason to think that age is a strong determinant of health, cognitive or physical abilities, sickness absence, work-related injuries or productivity.

A 2011 HSE report, An update of the literature on age and employment, suggests that although there are some possible effects of ageing that would need to be taken into account by employers, an older workforce actually offers a set of positive attributes, like good timekeeping, interpersonal and people skills and better anger management.

What's more, the study also shows that overall there is no evidence that older workers are more at risk of workplace accidents or injury than their younger counterparts.

The HSE report, which defines an older worker as being over the age of 50, says there is no consistent evidence that older workers are less productive than younger ones and, when there is functional decline, older workers have an array of experience that can be drawn on in order to compensate.

And while evidence suggests that muscle strength declines between 30 and 65 years of age, this is unlikely to be noticeable until after the age of 65.

However, diabetes, which has show an increase in prevalence, will become more common in those at work, the report finds.

Nevertheless, while more people at work will have 'common' health problems, the report stresses that there is no reason to think these problems are caused or exacerbated by work more regularly for older workers.

"The findings of this review on the effects of ageing and employability are that there is little evidence that chronological age is a strong determinant of health, cognitive or physical abilities, sickness absence, work-related injuries or productivity," the report said.

So how can firms accommodate an older workforce? Recent research suggests more firms are thinking about implementing work-based health initiatives.

A recent survey of multinationals by professional services company Towers Watson found that three out of four organisations said workforce health and promoting health and wellbeing will be more of a priority this year and next, while 87 per cent said they will make it a higher priority over the next two to four years. 

"Given the variety of health systems and market practices around the world, and the significant differences in costs for employers to sponsor health plans, the need for a global workforce health strategy has never been greater," said Francis Coleman, a senior international consultant at the firm. 

By formally introducing specific practices to meet the demands of older workers, and by adapting current ones, companies can easily benefit from the varied resources older workers offer.ADNFCR-2134-ID-800630266-ADNFCR