Health and safety and age

by Laurie Anstis on October 4, 2012

It has now been more than a year since the abolition of a default retirement age. Since then, employers who want to compulsorily retire employees have to show that any such retirement is justified, in accordance with the principles set out by the Supreme Court in the case of Seldon v Clarkson, Wright and Jakes.

One point sometimes cited by employers in favour of compulsory retirement is health and safety. They may try to argue that an employee over a certain age can no longer safely carry out a particular role. They may try to say that an employee’s abilities decline with age, and there comes a point at which the employee becomes a  danger to themselves or to their colleagues, or members of the public with whom the employee may come into contact.

The Health and Safety Executive has just published a research report (pdf) looking at the question of how age might affect safety critical work.

This report is a review of existing research, rather than a fresh study, but it is still useful to have the relevant evidence brought together in one paper. The report looks at where research has been carried out – in particular in the aviation sector. Here are some extracts from the conclusions are at page 40:

“Whilst there is evidence that cognitive and physical abilities decline with an increase in age, these do not necessarily have a negative impact on performance at work …

The relationship between chronological age and performance is not a simple and straightforward one …

Jobs that are high demand or high risk (with high physical, mental/cognitive or psychosocial job characteristics) are those which could potentially result in safety critical outcomes if workers’ performance decreases. Individuals are able to use various strategies to compensate for age related declines in performance, such as their expertise, job knowledge, education and high motivation. However, where job demands exceed the overall capacity of a worker they may no longer be able to compensate for any decline …

There is some evidence that older shift workers and construction workers are at greater risk of injury or accidents at work but further research is required on the performance of older workers (in high demand jobs) to ascertain the extent of this issue …”

The report goes on to recommend further research and development of a formal system which employers can use to assess workers’ abilities and, where necessary,  put safeguards in place.

The report is well worth reading by employers who have concerns about the effect that age may have on the health and safety of their workforce. One interesting question that the research does raise is at what age there can be said to be a statistically significant decline in performance. The report says that “cognitive performance does not generally decline until after the age of 70” but also that “fluid cognitive ability, such as abstract problem solving … [has] been found to deteriorate … from around the age of 20 onwards.” Employers who wish to use health and safety as a justification for compulsory retirement are going to have to address a number of difficult questions, including what the appropriate age for such retirement is, and why the problem requires the compulsory retirement of everyone at a particular age, rather than the more nuanced approach of individual ability tests across all ages.