Megatrends are slowly and profoundly reshaping the world: how we do business, where we work and what we care about. What does the future look like in a world where technology holds sway?
While the principles of risk identification and control are unchanging, the workplaces in which professionals apply them are shifting. These interlinked megatrends – in technology, business practice and the global environment – present us with a mixture of new challenges and solutions to old ones.
The biggest changes to work, already underway, will come from technology (though the true effect of the COVID-19 pandemic is yet to be appreciated). Greater and cheaper computer processing and machine learning will combine to further automate jobs. The most conspicuous examples of the substitution of machines for people has been at retail checkouts and customer call centres. Oxford Economics estimates that 1.7 million manufacturing jobs worldwide have also been replaced by robots between 2000 and 2019 and predicts that another 20 million will go by 2030. But the next generation of software will replace processing and transactional work in professions such as law and accountancy, making workers redundant in traditionally middle-class sectors. It is estimated that as many as 47% of all jobs are vulnerable.
‘If you can conceive of something, technology will have an answer for it within months rather than years,’ says Duncan Spencer, IOSH head of advice and practice. ‘Rapid change in the workplace is going to be incessant.’
Societies will need to cope with high numbers of displaced workers, who will either need to be retrained for jobs created by the digital economy or provided with some form of meaningful activity and income if employment levels are permanently reduced. The idea of a basic income paid to all citizens has been widely discussed in response.
Who’s in control?
Automation will remove some high-risk activities from the workplace, eliminating some types of work at height, for example (see Rise of the machines, below). A 2018 EU-OSHA study suggests the growth in information and communications technology-enabled applications could give workers more autonomy and control over their work. However, it warns that if governed by algorithms, personnel could feel more pressure to be productive and have less control over work content, pace and scheduling. This could correspond with a rise in work-related stress, poor health and wellbeing, lower productivity and increased sickness absence. Work for a brighter future, a report by the International Labour Organization, recommends a ‘human in command’ mandate for workplace technology to ensure humans are not placed at greater risk of burnout by machine control (see Resources below.)
Improved telecoms bandwidth and cheaper laptop PCs have prompted the dispersion of computer-based work from expensive city office space – a trend likely to be accelerated by enforced home-working during the pandemic. Out-of-office working can provide workers with a better work/life balance but also places them in environments where it is harder for employers to prevent conditions such as musculoskeletal disorders. The ‘work anywhere’ culture can lead to long hours as the timekeeping cues of office life are left behind. Smartphones exacerbate the problem, tempting workers to read and answer email at any time of day or night.
The automation of physical work, increasingly making computer-based tasks the norm for customer-facing jobs, brings an OSH challenge in dealing with the risks of inactivity – so-called sedentarianism – and not just the physical ones such as circulatory diseases. ‘There is a considerable body of work demonstrating that your psychological wellbeing is based in part on how good your physical activity is,’ says Duncan.
Technological change could also change workplace risk profiles through the development of new materials. Nanotechnology offers an example, since nanoparticles’ size – comparable to viruses – can sometimes bypass the human body’s natural defences. Exposure to engineered carbon nanotubes has been found to cause the cancer mesothelioma in rodents, inflaming the lungs’ lining in the same way asbestos fibres do.
Non-standard as standard
Another major factor shaping the future of work will be the change in the structure of employment contracts. Since the turn of the century, alternative ways of working have flourished. In 2018, 14% of European workers were on temporary contracts, another 14% were self-employed and 19% were on part-time contracts.
‘I think the gig economy is here to stay,’ says Duncan. In economies subject to periodic shocks, ‘businesses would rather bring people in temporarily for a project than risk bringing them in full-time’.
He points out that employers’ duty of care to workers crosses contract boundaries but argues the way contingent workers receive OSH instruction and training may have to change. ‘We have created safety management systems that look after permanent employees in a specific workplace,’ he says, ‘but a good system in future will not have reams and reams of paper and complicated training courses associated with it. You just need to get focused information over to people fast.’
Where once trade unions championed workers’ rights through collective bargaining, low membership means they are often most effective now lobbying governments and naming and shaming employers for poor practice. Duncan sees unions fitting into a system in which pressure for necessary reductions in occupational disease rates, for example, are made as a result of public expectations driving government policy and demanding a response from employers. ‘All three are interlinked,’ he says of this variant on traditional tripartism, ‘and together they are going to push forward this agenda about non-communicable diseases.’ Responding to new working patterns such as home-working, the gig economy and technological change is unlikely to be the job of governments, Duncan predicts, as more countries adopt the general regulatory duty of care that exists in UK law. ‘There’s probably going to be more of a reliance on international standards, at least in the short term,’ he says. ‘But there are real questions about the time needed to develop regulations and standards and how that measures up to the speed of technological and industrial advance. The latter is outstripping the former.’
Rise of the machines Robot world
The automation of processes and substitution of human activity is introducing new ways to reduce occupational risk and this process is likely to accelerate. Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with video cameras are used to substitute for work at height and confined-space entry, inspecting buildings and utility infrastructure such as storage tanks and pipelines. UAVs are being developed that will also make repairs as well as just fault spotting.
The prospect of elements of risk being reduced for human workers is offered by assistive technologies such as exoskeletons, helping with repetitive actions or heavy lifting, but in many cases these are likely to be halfway houses to full automation of the work processes in the medium term. Heavy lifting may also be taken over by machines working in proximity to humans. Where previously industrial robots have been segregated from humans in interlocked cages, collaborative robots (or ‘cobots’) have been developed to work unguarded in manufacturing, logistics and healthcare, where increasingly they will perform cognitive as well
as physical tasks.
Driverless vehicles, which offer the prospect of reduced traffic accidents, are likely to become a feature of roads and workplaces once technology or legislative changes deal with the potential liability of their software programmers in the few instances where they injure humans.
The increased monitoring data from location trackers, exposure and smart personal protective equipment combined with increased analytical capabilities offered by artificial intelligence (AI) could have profound effects on risk management.
‘The Internet of Things, sensors in surrounding devices and robots, and wearable monitoring devices could allow the recording (automatically or manually) of real-time observations or incidents, including OSH exposures, directly into an OSH management system and online OSH records and provide access to “moment of need” information,’ says a report by EU-OSHA. ‘AI could be used to analyse this information alongside historical data and provide advice directly to the worker and/or employer.’
Human capital and CSR
For knowledge workers, changes in the employment relationship and work organisation are likely to deepen. Matrix management, networked organisations and team-based structures seem set to grow.
Accountancy firm Deloitte’s 2019 Human capital trends report said the team is now the dominant work structure: ‘In the long term, we believe there will be no leading organisation that does not work primarily on the basis of teams.’ Many organisations are now looking beyond simple engagement to prioritise employee experience, a measure of satisfaction comparable with customer experience.
Research by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that businesses with a top-quartile employee experience achieved twice the innovation, double the customer satisfaction, and 25% higher profits than organisations with a bottom-quartile employee experience. Good safety and health management underpins good employee experience by providing the foundations of safe, healthy and productive working conditions.
Corporate social responsibility (CSR) gained traction in the late 20th century, spurred on by concerns about corporations’ environmental impact. In recent years, demands have grown for organisations to measure and increase their positive impact on the health of the communities they operate in and the wider world. Organisations are expected to report on this triple bottom-line – people, profits and planet – showing how they balance all three. These expectations come from governments through regulation, and the public through consumer boycotts of brands that are irresponsible or exploitative.
Organisations keen to be seen to be doing good have signed up to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More than 13,000 organisations in 160 countries have signed up to the UN Global Compact, committing themselves to aligning strategies and operations with the SDGs (see Resources, below).
'If governed by algorithms, personnel could feel more pressure to be productive and have less control over their work'
Investing in altruism?
As globalisation has spread and supply chains have extended across the world, standards for responsible procurement have increased, spurred on by major lapses such as the 2013 Rana Plaza garment factory disaster in Bangladesh.
Derran Williams, senior health and safety adviser at the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), says investment institutions, led by the EBRD, are increasingly setting health and safety performance requirements for contractors on the major infrastructure projects they fund. ‘Ten years ago, it was all focused on environmental issues, but the development banks and financial institutions have an appetite to do more,’ says Derran.
The UN Global Compact has launched an initiative to promote ‘decent work in global supply chains’, which includes a toolkit designed to help organisations balance the normal procurement priorities of service quality and lowest cost, with ethical criteria such as avoiding worker exploitation (see Resources).
The focus of shareholders on labour standards has extended beyond supply chains to direct labour forces. A growing number of organisations are working to standards such as GRI 403, which IOSH helped develop, requiring measurement and reporting of safety, health and wellbeing metrics.
Investor interest in environmental and social standards is not prompted just by altruism. Those that focus on efficient use of materials and energy and plan for the circular economy will be more resilient against future resource scarcity. Research suggests that employers who meet higher environmental, social and governance standards also perform better financially and are more economically resilient. One reason is likely to be the increasing appetite among workers for jobs with a purpose beyond generating profit. A survey of 2000 people in the UK by the consultancy Global Tolerance found that 62% wanted to work for a company that made a positive impact on the world, and 53% would work harder if they believed their companies benefitted society. Employers who want to keep these workers will have to adopt a human capital approach.
As technology replaces more routine jobs, employers will have to compete hard for skilled workers to fill the non-mechanised functions. This pressure, along with greater public and governmental scrutiny, means the commitment to CSR is likely to increase.
Some changes to working patterns in the next 50 years will be influenced by forces beyond the social and economic ones. By 2050, a 1.5% average increase in temperature caused by man-made global warming would give London a comparable climate to that of Barcelona today, according to a 2019 study by ETH Zurich.
Hotter, brighter days will inevitably increase the rate of non-melanoma skin cancer from its current estimated total of between two and three million cases a year, particularly as paler-skinned populations with less natural protection are exposed. OSH professionals will be tasked with increasing protection and safe behaviour among outdoor workers such as those in construction.
In southern Europe and Asia, the risk of heat stress will increase and work schedules for outdoor workers in summer may be similar to those adopted by construction sector employers in the Middle East today. On the current programme to extend Qatar’s rail network, for example, sites operate work patterns according to risk categories determined by the temperature and humidity, ranging from ‘caution’ (at 30°C to 35°C) to ‘extreme danger’ (at 50°C to 60°C). In ‘extreme danger’ periods, no one works in direct sunlight, workers take 15-minute breaks every hour and receive regular rehydration alerts.
Global temperature rises, even if limited to the 1.5°C average increase targeted by the 2015 Paris climate agreement, are also expected to result in more extreme weather events, including storms and flooding. Suitably equipping and training workers in essential services to cope with these conditions will be another challenge for OSH professionals.