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What’s the problem?

The national infrastructure of some countries will face increasing challenges from a population that is ageing. So far, research on the health and safety risks of workers over 60 has been limited. Studies on the perceptions of safety have tended to define ‘older’ workers as 50-plus, rather than people over retirement age. When people over 60 have been included in research, the focus has been either on motivations for working or on accident rates and days lost from injury. Generally, these studies have featured managers’ and employers’ – not employees’ – perceptions and experiences of health and safety in the workplace.

The research project had three objectives:

  • to carry out a systematic review of evidence available in 2009 concerning safety practices and risks for workers aged over 60;
  • to conduct a qualitative interview study of workers over age 60 in 2010; and
  • to conduct an online survey of workers in all age groups, comparing experiences and attitudes on safety at work in 2011

What did our researchers do?

The literature review addressed the specific question, ‘What are the health and safety risks associated with postretirement age working?’ Using several databases, the authors looked for relevant health and safety research in which participants aged over 60 formed substantial sections of the sample. The search criteria excluded policy documents, management perceptions of older workers’ benefits and liabilities, and articles about health after retirement.

The authors then conducted face-to-face interviews with 40 people aged 60–91 to explore their perceptions of workplace hazards and discomforts. Each person was asked about their experience of safety risks and incidents and safety practices at work.

The third phase of the project was an online survey. Some themes emerging from the face-to-face interviews were used to design the final survey questionnaire. Respondents were asked about their employers’ preferred retirement age (if any) and to say whether they had retired at the state pension age and then returned to work. Further questions explored safety cultures and attitudes to workplace safety

What did our researchers find out?

Post-retirement age workers may face different workplace risks, relating to specific job tasks. While older people as a whole tend to show cognitive decline with advancing years, there was little evidence that these changes affect job performance or safety for workers aged over 60. This was less clear for driving safety, however.

Education and experience seem to have important protective effects. Workers aged over 60 seem able to apply protective or compensatory strategies which help to maintain safe working practices – for example, when driving. Work patterns such as shift work or overtime do not appear to be related to older workers’ safety.

Overall, the literature review confirmed that relatively little is known about people who work beyond 60 and into their later years. Research studies conducted over a period of time could help to identify factors which enable workers to remain in work safely into their late 60s and beyond.

The face-to-face interview study of 40 workers identified few hazards and no accidents since participants’ reported retirement age. Issues reported included the physical demands of work, tiredness, driving and interpersonal difficulties such as excessive demands and client/customer complaints. Most of the work-related hazards identified, such as prolonged sitting at computers, lifting heavy items and driving, were seen to affect workers of all ages similarly. Interviewees adopted coping strategies such as part-time working, altering work roles, limiting driving, applying work related expertise, assertiveness, using authority or status and (if employed in larger organisations) getting support from company or organisational policies and practices. Participants emphasised individual responsibility for managing workplace hazards.

As well as financial need, most participants had a range of motives for continuing in work beyond retirement age. Almost all felt there were benefits to their health and vitality from the physical activity involved in working, particularly from maintaining routines and obligations. In addition, they felt that their psychological well-being increased by maintaining professional identities, meeting challenges, continuing personal development and social affirmation at work. The prevalence of part-time work, which enabled leisure and physical activities to be incorporated into daily life, may also have been beneficial for health, and potentially for safety.

Post retirement 1

Post retirement 2

Overall, the study found that workers aged over 60 reported good health and vitality, and shared with younger workers positive safety attitudes and coping strategies for hazards at work. In terms of exposure to hazards, the over-60 workers reported less computer usage, less stress from e-mails and less daily driving.

What does the research mean?

Overall, the evidence collated here from review of the literature and empirical research suggests that workers aged over 60 are able to cope well with their work and its safety aspects, although more detailed research is required.

The study found that, for all age groups, there is a lower acceptance of risky practices when there are positive views about management commitment to safety. Strong personal commitment and knowledge regarding safety are also associated with lower acceptance of risky practices.

As in the wider research literature on older workers, this study revealed few age differences in reported hazards and safety attitudes.

On the whole, workers over 60 reported fewer problems than their younger counterparts regarding working with computers, eye-strain or stress at work. Among older workers, there was no evidence for increased accidents or greater exposure to physical hazards. On the contrary, this group reported significantly greater vitality. This may represent the ‘opting in’ process: those who are healthier and more committed to work tend to stay beyond 60.

The oldest workers did not report greater safety consciousness. In fact they were less likely to say that their safety at work was improved by being more aware of hazards, more assertive or more able to use authority or status. However, the reasons for these age group differences are unclear. There may have been some modesty about their level of expertise, or a lack of familiarity with job or work contexts. The degree to which they could be assertive or authoritative could also vary.

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Ivan Williams