Industry News

Podcast Transcript: Implications of the Aging Workforce in Europe

Sarah Copsey of EU-OSHA recently us to discuss the implications of COVID-19 and an aging workforce on the construction industry and beyond. In this podcast episode, Copsey explains how making even small changes in your coatings company can have a huge impact on your business and workforce. See below for a complete transcript.

For more information, contact: EU-OSHA,

[introductory comments]

Stephanie Chizik (CK): Thanks so much for joining us today, Sarah.

Sarah Copsey (SC): You’re welcome. Glad to be here.

CK: Why don’t we start by giving the listeners a bit of your background?

SC: By academic training, I’m an ergonomist and psychologist. Following that, I worked for 10 years as the head of health and safety for the largest public-sector trades union in the UK. In fact, during that time, I was on, for a short while, the tripartite advisory committee for the — national advisory committee for the UK construction sector.

When I moved to working in the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, while I’ve been there, I’ve worked on a variety of different types of projects, from the cleaning sector to the transport sector. More recently, I was involved in a major project for the European Parliament on health and safety and the aging workforce. Right now, I’m working on a major activity and campaign on the prevention of musculoskeletal diseases in the workplace.


CK: Wow. It sounds like you have a great background to fit with your current role. That kind of leads into my next question, which is, “What are the challenges going on right now in the construction industry?” I think you just touched on a few of those. Obviously, we’ve got COVID-19 affecting everything as well. Could you touch on a little bit of what the workforce challenges are right now, how that’s affecting the construction industry?

SC: In general, the workforce challenges are the same as they’ve always been, which is how to effectively control health and safety risks and reduce worker exposure to hazards, and to keep the workforce safe and healthy. In the particular situation — well, we’ve got two issues. In the particular situation of the aging workforce, we know that — well, it’s estimated that between 2016 and 2060, the working population in the European Union will decline by over 10%. With the reduced birthrate of the developed countries, there are going to be far fewer younger workers. So that means that all industries, including the construction industries, need to find effective ways to keep their older skilled and experienced workers in good shape and to support them to be able to work longer.

Now you mentioned COVID. COVID is having a huge effect on all sectors, all types of jobs, and our whole lives, of course. With regard to older workers, you’ve got some older workers — we know older people are more vulnerable to COVID. So it’s a really important issue to find ways to make sure that they are safe, that they can socially distance, and that they can follow all the safety rules. In a sector — this is in general, but this group in particular, in the construction sector, there are issues about being able to get access to handwashing facilities. How do you socially distance in changing areas or eating facilities? How do you ensure that masks don’t become damaged while people are working and therefore ineffective? Then there are specific issues, like traveling with workers in minibuses to sites and that sort of thing, and how do you maintain social distancing there? In some regards, in the part of the construction sector where you’re working outdoors, it may be less of a problem than working indoors. Nevertheless, there are still challenges in working alongside other people.


CK: I didn’t even think about the traveling to and from work.

SC: Especially place like the construction sector, if you’re getting gangs or teams together and you need to transport them in minibuses, if you’ve got people who are kind of working-away workers, so they’re sleeping in a hostel or something like that, again, there are real issues there about how you segregate people. What happens if someone goes down with COVID, and that sort of thing. Can you keep shifts of workers working together so you’re not mixing people so much? A whole range of issues.

Then, of course, it affects some more general things for health and safety training. You want to limit how many people are getting together. How does it work for having toolbox talks on the site, and that sort of thing, where you want to get a group of people together? On the admin side, a lot of us are now teleworking, of course. That brings some opportunities, because for some businesses, they’re seeing for the first time that teleworking is a possibility. It can work in practice. Teleworking, for example, often helps people who have developed a chronic condition to be able to manage their problem and continue working. If there ergonomic conditions at home are not great or if people find themselves working longer hours and not taking breaks to get up and move around, this then becomes an issue. That can be a particular issue for older workers. Also, we have a general concern, I think, all of the attention on COVID may be diverting attention away from the continued needs to put effort into assessing and managing risks in the workplace as well. That’s a general issue that you can’t take your eye off the ball of general health and safety prevention just to deal with the COVID issues.


CK: That’s a good point. When I think about the top, it’s something like four or five, citations over here — it’s the top four or five risks — pertaining around fall protection and dropped objects and those kinds of things. That obviously is not getting discussed right now because all eyes are on COVID. So it’s a really good point that it’s detracting from the issues that are still there that people still need to be dealing with.

SC: Exactly. Those issues aren’t going to go away. If they get ignored or programs or things that were going to be put in place to deal with it get postponed, that’s only building up problems.


CK: Right. I do wonder, to circle back to something you said about the aging workforce, if some of these opportunities that we’re seeing right now with COVID, like people starting to do admin work from home, like you were saying, could that potentially offer an opportunity for some of those aging members of the workforce to continue working, whereas they might not have been able to do that in the past?

SC: Definitely. We see that, where companies are accommodating older workers or particularly people who’ve developed some sort of chronic condition, teleworking — a component of teleworking is often really helpful to them. They can cut down on, people with a chronic condition it can cut down on your need to commute. It can make it easier for you to organize your work to get to medical appointments and that sort of thing. I know, from my own experience, because I have a back problem. Now I’m working from home. I’m actually feeling better because I can get up and move around when I want to. Even, for example, if I don’t need the screen on, if I don’t need my video on when I’m having a work meeting, I can actually get up and walk around and move. So that kind of flexibility can be really helpful to enable people to carry on working.


CK: That’s a great point. I do the same thing but I hadn’t thought of it from a standpoint of how it could help with the construction industry as well, and the aging workforce. Any other possible solutions that you’re seeing for some of those challenges out there? Any concrete examples that you’d want to give?

SC: In terms of the aging workforce, what’s needed is — well, first and foremost, what’s needed for the construction industry, because a lot of the work-related health problems you see in the construction industry of course developed over time, so musculoskeletal disorders or hearing loss, lung and respiratory problems from exposure to chemicals and dusts, etc., to tackle those, you need good working conditions right from the first day of work, from the start of your working life. Because they develop cumulatively due to repeated exposure to the hazards. So it’s important to have good health and safety for all the workforce from day one. It’s no good waiting until someone’s 55 and worn out.

On the other side, for example, if you have younger workers doing all the heavy work, they’re going to be worn out when they become older. That’s the first thing we say: You need to improve the health and safety. You need to manage health and safety for all the workforce. Indeed, if you take measured steps to prevent risks and make work easier and improve the ergonomics of all your workers, that can make the difference between an older worker with reduced work capacity being able to stay in work or leave the work. That kind of preventive, top-end approach is benefiting everybody. Combined with that, you need an approach where, for those individuals who need it, to provide some specific support and adjustments. Of course, the safer and easier you’re making work in the first place, the less need there is for specific support and adjustments for individuals further down the line.

But it’s also important to not treat older workers as a blanket group, because they’re in fact, as we get older, we become more and more diverse. For example, a person of 55 could be fitter and stronger than a person of 25. So it is important to avoid stereotypical thinking about what people can or cannot do or assume that all older workers are the same. Then as part of this approach, we’ve got good health and safety, specific adjustments, then the third thing is to ensure early intervention for any problems that arise. For that, you need to create a good work environment where workers feel able to either raise health and safety problems or talk about a specific health problem that is affecting their ability to work. Because we know the earlier intervention is made, both in the workplace and for medical care, the more likely any intervention is effective, the less chronic the condition is going to have become, and therefore the more effective the intervention is likely to be. That’s the next thing that’s really important. Then to say — so I’ve been talking a lot about interventions, doing this, doing that in general, but very many solutions are actually quite simple and cheap to implement. That’s also needs to be borne in mind as well. What I think I’m saying is being proactive on health and safety, and then also proactive around older workers and not seeing everything as a problem but looking for solutions in that kind of way.


CK: I love that positive spin on it. I think it’s a good — it harkens back to what you were saying about the change of the numbers of the workforce. We can’t afford to be losing people in the workforce, so we should be treating them like individuals and treating them in the best way for them. I think that would also — we’ve talked a lot about the aging workforce, but I would suspect that also includes all other kinds of people, too. I think women is another area of the workforce that could certainly be expanded upon to help with the changes in decreasing numbers in construction workers.

SC: In fact, that’s a very good point. The whole general approach as well. If you’re thinking first to make work safer and healthier and physical work easier for the entire workforce, that may open up opportunities for women to enter construction jobs, if you’re making the work in general easier for everybody. Although this example of making work easier and the whole workforce, it doesn’t come from the construction sector, but I think it’s a really nice example. It comes from a car factory, automobile manufacturer. With their older workforce, they were having a lot of sickness absence, a lot of musculoskeletal problems, people going on early retirement. They made changes to the plant and the production line.

One of the things they did is they flipped over the chassis or the body of the vehicle, so the workers were no longer bending down underneath the vehicle to work. They were working upright over it, as though it was a workbench. That solved — that reduced musculoskeletal disorders and sickness absences. But what they also found, and what they hadn’t expected, was that suddenly they began to recruit more younger workers as well. Presumably, word got round that this was no longer the back-breaking, horrible, back-breaking work that their fathers had been doing, which they were avoiding at all costs and were willing to work in the factory again. That was an unexpected consequence. In general, probably what I’m saying is that if you go beyond just the prevention but think in terms of a diverse workforce, is how can we make work in general more inclusive? How can we design work to be more universal so that you are expanding the pool of workers that you can employ as the working age population is shrinking? That’s really important for the future, I think.


CK: Hopefully, people can start making some of those — to me, that doesn’t sound like a huge change that the car factory made — and look at the amazing benefit that came out of it. Hopefully, people can start making some similar changes and have huge positive consequences. That would be great.

SC: There are actually very many much smaller things that can be done to either enable somebody to carry on working or to make work easier for everybody. Just simple ergonomic measures like providing a trolley or power tools. Can working hours be adjusted? Is there some opportunity for some part-time working or flex hours, depending on the type of work, of course? Then is there opportunity for task rotation as well? So one’s person’s not — if the physical work is rotated with less physical work. Or in an individual case, is it possible for a particular task that that worker could no longer easily do, be given to other workers to carry out? Those are all really simple measures which don’t necessarily have cost implications, that even small workplaces can think of implementing.

CK: Maybe just a bit of a different mindset is what’s needed to start the ball rolling.

SC: Yes, I think so. In health and safety in general, one of the issues is often thought, “Oh it’s a cost. It’s a negative thing.” Whereas we try to emphasize the business benefits of having a safe and healthy workforce and investing in your workforce’s health and well-being throughout their working lives. That has an effect on sickness absence, on productivity, reduced recruitment costs. Also the organization, the company, can benefit from having a better reputation as a good employer as well. Many positive things in addition to opening out your possible pool of workers that you can recruit at the same time.


CK: I think those are some great tips there. Thank you. What resources does the EU-OSHA have that we can share with our listeners?

SC: In general, on our websites, we have a lot of fact sheets on individual topics. It was some years ago now, but we did run a campaign on the construction sector. We’ve also run a campaign on maintenance workers as well. We’ve got simple, two-sided fact sheets on health and safety issues related to construction sector and maintenance. Those are translated into many of the European Union official languages. That would include Spanish, for example. Spanish and Portuguese, for example. We also collect case studies. For those two issues, for the campaigns on construction and maintenance, we collected some case studies as part of a good practice award.

For the aging workforce, we’ve also collected some interesting case studies, including one from a very small roofing company. I think they only had something like 12 employees where they made changes thinking about the aging of their workforce. They were doing things like introducing some aids to make the thing easier, etc. Even with the case studies of the large companies, we generally try and assess them to say, “How could it be adapted for use for a smaller company as well?” Now we’re about to, we’re starting our musculoskeletal disorder campaign, which will run for two years. That’s going to focus on prevention in general, what is possible and what can be done. Then a component of it is going to focus on working with chronic musculoskeletal disorders. To support that, we’ve already published some case studies of what kind of accommodations were made to enable individuals in different workplaces to carry on working.

Another issue is looking at prolonged standing work, prolonged sitting work, and how to get the workforce moving more, and including lots of tips for employers on what could be done to avoid static postures in general. That’s just a few of the things. It’s a multi-lingual website as well, covering all the European Union languages. As I said, many of the stuff aimed at workplaces, good practice information, is in various languages.


CK: That’s amazing. Could you briefly give the website for our listeners in case they want to go check out all those great resources?

SC: It’s But if you search in Google for EU OSHA, the website comes up eventually.

CK: Awesome. Thank you. Before I let you go, I wanted to briefly touch on — we talked a lot about what’s going on currently, what’s been developing over the past few months, let alone the past few years and over time. Is there anything you can touch on as far as what the future might look like regarding these issues?

SC: I general, of course, work’s not going to look like what it did pre-COVID. Probably health and safety and the way we carry through things and look at risks and assessment, that’s all going to be changed post-COVID. But regarding the aging workforce, that’s not a problem that’s going away. That’s an issue that, as far as we know, is on the increase.

But I think for the future, being positive again, what we know now, we know a lot more about the aging workforce, how to address it, to focus on making workplaces better, safer, and healthier for everyone. Focus on people’s work ability and not their incapacity. We need to keep in sight the increasing importance of making work sustainable across the work life course, knowing that many problems can be simple and cost-effective to solve as well. If they’re applied to the whole workforce, making work easier for all, we’re going to have a much better chance of keeping our older workers working longer and also healthy when they reach retirement and healthy into retirement, which is really important for individuals.

CK: Thank you. I think that’s a perfect place to stop.

[closing statements]