What are the global trends that will challenge the OSH profession about to undergo seismic change? IOSH held a series of workshops to shape the focus of its work in the future.
Historically, the OSH profession has adapted successfully, but mainly reactively, to changing industrial conditions. Although predicting the future brings its own challenges, we are already seeing some headline trends that may influence global developments over the next decade and beyond.
These include major changes in demographics; rapid urbanisation; a shift away from traditional work models; the meteoric rise of new advanced technologies; generational shifts in attitudes to ethics, social responsibility and sustainability; and a real potential for the OSH professional to be an ‘agent for change’.
The population in the UK and in economically developed countries will continue to grow, and the number of older people in employment will increase. Economies will have to contend with a growing proportion of ageing workers who will most likely be managing multiple long-term health conditions. Businesses will be pressured by a societal need to manage social security costs to keep these individuals healthier and in employment for longer. The current focus on mental ill health and non-communicable diseases, such as cancer and asthma, and avoiding chronic musculoskeletal conditions will continue. At the same time there could be a shortage of skilled workers, placing additional pressure on businesses and the work environment.
These significant long-term trends raise challenging questions for OSH professionals, most notably how they can ensure their knowledge and skills meet the needs of an increasingly diverse workforce and its different risk profile. The shift towards an ageing population also represents a threat to the profession’s existence unless a sustainable pipeline of new, younger talent can be encouraged to replace those nearing retirement and/or those in mid-career can be persuaded to join us too.
Shifting work models
By 2030, around 60% of the world’s population will live in cities. The evolution of the job market and the emergence of new work models is inextricably linked to this urban creep. We have already seen the growth of the gig and informal economies, which will continue to flourish; opportunities for flexible and home-working will also trend upwards. Better management tools and techniques must be developed to improve the OSH management of remote workers and others operating in the informal economy.
This new dynamic presents opportunities for employers and employees, but also risks. Greater access to labour in an urban environment could promote a ‘race to the bottom’ in OSH standards since some workers can be easily replaced. It is quite conceivable that there will be less emphasis on regulation and standards as the pace of change outstrips the speed at which they can be written and agreed. Instead, risk management, prediction and prevention will gain greater currency. Global standards will focus more on approach and philosophy than specific requirements. OSH professionals will need to adapt accordingly, so that they are best placed to successfully mitigate and eliminate risks.
'The focus will change from economic success models to a desire for a thriving society'
Rapid advancement of technology will have a significant impact on the world of work, influencing where people are employed, the design of workplaces and the type of work people do. Not only will advanced tech influence job access, employment levels and patterns, but developments as diverse as autonomous and unmanned technology, robotics, artificial intelligence, and augmented and virtual realities will set employers and employees new OSH challenges.
Greater access to advanced technology will furnish far more data and inevitably result in new ways of communicating OSH guidance. However, there is a danger that employers could be overwhelmed by a surge in guidance directed at them, potentially making it difficult for them to know which information to trust. The OSH professional must be positioned at the forefront of these developments and quickly grasp the complexities implicit in the fourth industrial revolution, the impact on the workplace and how they, as professionals, can respond effectively.
By 2025, millennials (those born between about 1980 and 2000) will make up 75% of the global workforce. Research by the UK’s Institute of Leadership & Management shows that this age group strongly values ethical workplaces, and businesses will be pressured further on their environmental, social and diversity responsibilities. Climate change will drive new OSH considerations and risk responses, and we may see a growing focus on localisation in economies as global resources become scarcer. Indicators suggest that the focus will change from economic success models to a desire for a thriving society as organisations are held more accountable for ethical practice, and sustainable businesses move from an aspiration to the norm. In other trends, good practice will need to be better shared between private and public sectors.
All this represents an opportunity for OSH professionals to take the lead on social responsibility and sustainability. For many in developing economies, OSH is a first career choice, and its impact can be enhanced if positioned as part of the sustainability agenda. To capitalise, OSH professionals will need to develop and strengthen their knowledge of this emerging topic.
The Future Professional: Be an agent of change
Future OSH professionals will be required not just to demonstrate their technical expertise but also to master increasingly sought-after business skills and behaviours.
Some professionals now struggle to describe the value their role brings to their organisation. Nor do many possess enough knowledge to support new and emerging business models, including the new ethical emphasis on supply chain OSH standards. OSH professionals can only wield influence if they close these vital knowledge and skill gaps.
The OSH profession has sometimes been rooted in the evidence of the past – illustrated by its traditional bias towards lagging indicators. The world is changing so rapidly that such a view no longer serves us well. OSH professionals need to consider the challenges of tomorrow, the risks they will present and build the skills of tomorrow, today. It is the responsibility of us all to engage with our organisations’ discussion of the future and support them to become sustainably successful.