Effects of physically demanding work on older workers

The Health and Career (SIP) survey 2007 shows that 35% of older workers have been exposed to at least one type of physical difficulty at work for at least fifteen years. These people are less likely to be in good health and also less likely to be in employment than older workers who are not in jobs that expose them to physical risk. This suggests that persistent physical demands or difficulties at work may be damaging to health and could lead to an early exit from the job market for some workers.

Survey methodology

The Health and Career (SIP) survey 2007 was jointly developed by Dares, the Ministry of Employment’s Office for Research and Statistics, DRESS, the Directorate of research, studies, evaluation and statistics, and the Centre of Employment Studies (CEE) and carried out by the French National Institute for Statistics and Economic Studies (INSEE).

The group targeted are those aged between 50–59 who have worked for at least 10 years. This study explores four dimensions of physical difficulty in the course of employment: night work, consistently repetitive tasks, constant physically demanding work and exposure to poisonous or harmful products. The aim of the study was to explore the interaction between employment, working conditions and health.

Respondents were aged between 20 and 74, and the researchers made no selection or rejection on the basis of whether or not respondents had a job at the time of the survey. About 14,000 face-to-face interviews were conducted.

Type of physical difficulties

As Table 1 shows, 35% of older workers (those aged between 50–59) reported to the survey’s researchers that they have been exposed to at least one type of physically demanding work for at least 15 years. Of these, 23% reported that their work was always physically demanding, 12% reported exposure to poisonous materials and other harmful products, 11% to repetitive tasks, and 9% to night work, all factors which are commonly recognised indicators of working conditions affecting workers’ health.

The degree of exposure to such physical difficulties varies greatly according to the sector of activity. Analysing the survey data by the last sector in which respondents worked, people working in agriculture are most exposed to at least one type of physical demand – 55% of respondents in this sector – followed by industrial and construction workers (44% and 43% respectively), and 33% of service workers. However, there are great differences among service workers that depend upon their field of activity.

The type of difficulty also varies according to the field of activity and the profile of the worker. People working in transport (27%), industry (14%) and as blue-collar workers (16%) are the employees most exposed to the demands of night work. Blue-collar workers (22%), industrial workers (18%) and those working in services to enterprises (16%) are among the workers most concerned by the high incidence of repetitive tasks in their jobs. The same categories of workers are also among those most consistently exposed to poisonous and harmful products. This suggests that some workers are simultaneously exposed to several different types of physical challenge at work.

Table 1: Older workers exposed to at least one kind of physical difficulty at work for at least fifteen years (% of older workers)
 

Night work (always or often)

Repetitive tasks (always)

Physically demanding work (always)

Poisonous products (always)

At least one type of difficulty

Total

9%

11%

23%

12%

35%

Men

14%

11%

27%

15%

42%

Women

4%

11%

17%

9%

28%

Job category (last job)          
Farmers/craftsmen/traders

9%

6%

34%

13%

43%

Management positions

4%

3%

9%

5%

17%

Intermediary positions

8%

5%

16%

13%

29%

Employee

7%

11%

16%

8%

28%

Blue-collar

16%

22%

40%

21%

58%

Sector (last job)          
Agriculture

4%

8%

46%

13%

55%

Industry

14%

18%

27%

19%

44%

Construction

3%

6%

35%

18%

43%

Services, including:

9%

9%

19%

10%

31%

Trade

11%

10%

21%

8%

33%

Transport

27%

11%

28%

11%

46%

Financial or real estate activities

2%

6%

3%

2%

10%

Services to enterprises

8%

16%

21%

15%

36%

Services to persons

8%

7%

19%

12%

33%

Education, health, social action

6%

13%

24%

11%

33%

Administration

9%

6%

14%

8%

26%

Note: Weighted sample, population aged between 50 and 59 and having worked for at least ten years

Main findings

Workers exposed to more than one difficulty

Two or more of the four types of demand on the physical well-being of employees explored in this study are sometimes experienced simultaneously (see Table 2). One in ten older workers have been exposed to at least two of these factors for at least fifteen years, 4% to three factors, and 1% to all four. Table 2 shows that the number of people exposed increases when the period of exposure decreases.

Table 2: Exposure to several kinds of physical difficulties at work

Exposure to physical difficulty at work

One kind of difficulty Two kinds of difficulty Three kinds of difficulty Four kinds of difficulty One or more kind of difficulty
At least five years for each difficulty

1 688 000

23%

1 157 000

15%

727 000

10%

182 000

2%

3 754 000

50%

At least 10 years for each difficulty

1 645 000

22%

884 000

12%

457 000

6%

92 000

1%

3 078 000

41%

At least 15 years for each difficulty

1 570 000

20%

714 000

10%

292 000

4%

51 000

1%

2 627 000

35%

At least 20 years for each difficulty

1 359 000

18%

549 000

7%

207 000

3%

37 000

1%

2 152 000

29%

Note: 41% of the workers aged between 50 and 59 have been exposed to at least one kind of difficulty for at least 10 years.

Exposed workers prone to health problems

Workers who have been exposed to physical challenges at work are more often officially recognised as having a health problem than workers not exposed (see Table 3). They are also more likely to report that health problems cause difficulties in their daily lives.

Table 3: Administrative recognition of health problems
  Workers Non-workers with official recognition of health problem Other non-workers and unemployed Total
Total

73%

6%

21%

100%

Non exposed older workers (50–59)

75%

5%

20%

100%

Older workers exposed for at least 15 years to at least one type of physical difficulty at work

68%

8%

24%

100%

Exposed workers often not in employment

In 2007, 75% of older workers who had not been exposed to physical difficulties in their jobs were in employment, compared to 68% of older workers exposed to at least one kind of physical difficulty for at least fifteen years (see Table 3).

Commentary

Illustrating the long-term effects of poor working conditions on workers, this study raises the question of the sustainability of employment for older employees who face adverse working conditions. This study has relevance in the context of the political debate over the raising of the retirement age and extension of working life. The quality of working conditions is a key aspect of the successful maintenance of long careers.

Sarah Mongourdin-Denoix, HERA

Reference

Coutrot T., Rouxel C. (2011), ‘Emploi et santé des seniors durablement exposés à des pénibilités physiques au cours de leur carrière: l’apport de l’enquête « Santé et itinéraire professionnel »’ [Employment and health of older people permanently exposed to physical strain during their career: the contribution of the Health and Career Path survey], Dares Analyses, March 2011, N°020.

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