Keeping OSH central to a changing world of work

Executive director - policy, IOSH

How the OSH profession maintains relevance and value in an ever-changing and increasingly uncertain world of work has been at the forefront of my mind recently. 

As IOSH positions itself for its next strategic period, it is timely to consider some of the big trends that may well shape the future of the world of work and our profession. 

The world population is growing and ageing, but there are demographic imbalances. In the industrial countries, populations are either stagnating or declining, but in developing countries, they are booming. In industrial countries, immigration is likely to increase, not just to fill the skills shortages caused by population decline, but as a result of armed conflicts and environmental problems. 

The “brain drain” may turn into a “brain cycle” as growing numbers of migrants return home with new skills to accelerate local development. But talent will continue to be at a premium and retaining employees with key skills will be a challenge for employers.

Increased competition for talent will probably lead employers to introduce family-friendly, age-appropriate employment models. There will also be demand for educational and development programmes with greater emphasis on welfare, safety and health provisions.  

Careers play an increasingly important role in people’s lives. This could drive a convergence between private and working lives and a desire by individuals to integrate personal and professional goals. Employees may expect a better work-life balance and choose employers with sound organisational values. People may also choose careers that align with their personal goals – safety and health is well positioned as a career of choice for those who want to make a difference.

The ‘brain drain’ may turn into a ‘brain cycle’

As workers seek to be recognised as individuals, they are likely to be attracted more to “soft incentives” such as recognition, self-development, autonomy and values-driven engagement than traditional factors such as pay and promotion. 

Employers may have to redesign work processes to better suit individuals rather than the organisation, offering longer education, career breaks and frequent job changes. The traditional office-centred job is already changing with more mobile working and homeworking.

The convergence of nano-, bio- and information technologies and cognitive sciences is driving advances in medicine, energy, environmental protection and production processes. There is real potential here also for safety and health innovation. 

Knowledge of complex technologies will become a key business competence – many organisations are already exploring the potential to automate safety-critical work and to train using virtual technology. As our understanding of the science of safety and health increases we should keep open and inquisitive minds about the impact of technology on workplaces and flex with the changes.

As safety and health leaders, we should encourage innovation and collaboration and oversee expertise from inside and outside the organisation to harness the potential of converging technologies. We have some great examples of sharing best practice in OSH – harnessing opportunities in technological advances through collaboration and partnerships.

The world of work is changing and as OSH professionals we have an opportunity to help shape it. We will need to monitor these changes to ensure we remain relevant and positioned to deliver the right agenda at the right time. 



Shelley Frost is executive director - policy at IOSH. She was formerly head of sustainability at Aggregate Industries UK and has held a number of senior positions in the health and safety and sustainability arenas, from regulatory, policy and strategy to operational management.

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