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Maximum age for firefighters not discriminatory

12 January 2010

Imposing a maximum age requirement for firefighters was designed to ensure operational capacity and was therefore a lawful exemption from the ban on age discrimination, the European Court of Justice has ruled.

Colin Wolf applied to be an intermediate level fireman with the fire service in Frankfurt but was turned down because he would have been 31 on his start date, one year older than the maximum permitted under local regulations.

The ECJ found in case C-229/08 Wolf v Frankfurt am Main that the age limit in such a case fulfilled the conditions for exemption under the equal treatment directive 2000/78.

According to the Luxembourg judges, the concern to ensure the efficiency of the fire service was a legitimate aim under the directive, and physical fitness was a genuine occupational requirement.

In contrast to management positions, the activities of intermediate firefighters were characterised by their physical nature, the judges said, including fighting fires, rescuing persons, environment protection tasks, helping animals and dealing with dangerous animals, all of which required “the possession of especially high physical capacities”.

Upholding the German government’s contention, the court said that because respiratory capacity, musculature and endurance diminished with age, these tasks could only be performed by “young officials”.

Taking account of the training required and the fact that a firefighter would usually be assigned to ground duties for only 15 to 20 years, the court held that the 30-year-old age limit was a proportionate measure.

In a separate case, the ECJ ruled that setting an upper age limit of 68 for dentists in the national health service could be legitimate.

The court heard arguments in case C-341/08 Petersen that the measure was necessary for the protection of patients but ruled that it was unlawful because the age limit did not apply to dentists operating privately.

However, the judges said such a measure could be lawful where the aim was to open employment opportunities among younger dentists, provided it was necessary and appropriate depending on the characteristics of the labour market.

The cases follow on from two earlier rulings on age discrimination in the European court, Palacios de Villa and the Heyday case, brought by Age Concern, where the ECJ found that a default retirement age could be justified by the promotion of employment for younger people.

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