Forced retirement of police officers, fire fighters and correctional officials based solely on age, currently allowed under federal law, fails to increase public safety and probably does more harm than good, according to a Congressional mandated study.
"You can't use chronological age to predict who can best protect the public," asserts psychologist Frank J. Landy of Pennsylvania State University in University Park, director of the 16-month, $1-million project. "It may be that public safety is enhanced by allowing experience to accure in these occupations."
In 1986, federal lawmakers passed a bill eliminating mandatory retirement before age 70 for all workers except tenured college faculty and public safety officers, a category consisting of police officers, fire fighters and correctional officials. Airline pilots now also face age limits in employment. Mandatory retirement ages vary from one employer to another, but usually fall within the range of 60 to 65 years old.
Congress will review these exemptions in 1993. The 1986 bill authorized the funding of studies examining the effects of mandatory retirement ages for college and public safety employees. Another panel recommended last year that Congress remove age barriers to employment for college faculty.
Available data indicate that age proves a poor predictor of job performance among police, fire and correctional workers, according to Landy's 21-member scientific team. Instead, physical fitness and mental abilities -- which vary greatly from one person to another, regardless of age -- show the strongest link with the performance of public safety duties, concludes the report. Landy described its findings last week at a seminar held by the American Psychological Association in Washington, D.C.
He and his colleagues reviewed more than 2,000 published studies on various aspects of aging. They then gathered data on current and retired employees from 182 police departments, 165 fire departments and 102 correctional facilities throughout the United States. The researchers also used national data bases charting deaths, injuries and medical illnesses among public safety officers.
The investigation reveals a "vanishingly small" rate of medical emergencies among public safety workers carrying out critical safety tasks, even those aged 65 to 70. In fact, workers in their early 60s display greater average physical fitness than employees as much as 20 years younger, Landy says. Measures of mental abilities, such as memory and reasoning, remain roughly equal for all age groups. Average reaction times to new stimuli dip slightly for older workers, but the averages obscure the fact that many individuals aged 60 or older retain fast reaction times, Landy contends.
Moreover, older public safety workers often move into supervisory positions where their accumulated knowledge aids younger workers on the front lines, Landy maintains.
The new report recommends that police, fire and correctional departments adopt available physical and psychological tests for retirement evaluations.
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