Safety Risks Posed by Tomorrow’s Work Technology Needs Response Today, EU Study Finds

Safety Risks Posed by Tomorrow’s Work Technology Needs Response Today, EU Study Finds

  • Date: Tuesday 18th December 2018
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Raised levels of stress, increased ergonomic risks and cyber security issues have been identified as the likely outcomes of using more digital technology in the workplace, according to a report published by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA).

Foresight of new and emerging risks to occupational safety and health associated with digitalisation by 2025 is the product of a major two-year research project to determine the likely impact of new technologies.

The report says that, by 2025, new digital and automation technologies will have changed the equipment, tools and systems used to manage and deliver products and services in most sectors.

With advancing automation, work processes will become increasingly complex, interconnected and autonomous, impacting on the degree of control enjoyed by workers and in some cases increasing their pace of work and/or cognitive load.

Technologies due to become more widespread at work include 3D printing, autonomous vehicles (including drones), virtual reality and augmented reality.

“Robots will become uncaged, mobile, dexterous, close to workers, collaborative and increasingly intelligent, bringing automation to previously inaccessible tasks,” says the report.

Those tasks that are not replaced by robots are expected to change considerably, often through the use of sensors or devices sharing data wirelessly. These devices, together with bionics or exoskeletons, will enhance or monitor human performance.

The report adds that “the unprecedented opportunities” offered by new technology include the possibility of undertaking advanced workplace risk assessments, but that they also pose possible health and safety impacts themselves.

Because new information and communication technologies will drive changes in the type of work available, the pace at which it is conducted and where and when it is undertaken, there are likely to be increasing psychosocial and organisational risks factors for workers.

Increased worker monitoring will be made possible through advances in wearable technology, and the boundaries between work and private life will be increasingly blurred by 24/7 availability. Both trends could result in more work-related stress.

The report also points to increased ergonomic risks from the increase in online working and the use of mobile devices in non-office environments, while hew human-machine interfaces could pose risks in terms of cognitive load.

Current mechanisms for managing health and safety at work could be disrupted by the increase in online and flexible working, the report says, as well as introduction of “algorithmic management” – allowing companies to oversee myriads of workers in an optimised manner – and artificial intelligence (AI).

Workers may lack the necessary skills to use the new technology, cope with change and manage their work-life balance, the report suggests. More frequent job changes and longer working lives are also expected.

EU-OSHA intends the report to stimulate informed debate on the planning and policy-making needed to shape the future of workplace health and safety in a digital world.

It says that the regulatory framework should clarify liabilities and responsibilities in relation to new systems and new ways of working.

Effective health and safety at work should be provided for digital workers, while training and education would need to be adapted to meet the needs of workers in the future.

The report also suggests a number of strategies that could be adopted, including:

  • development of an ethical framework for digitalisation and codes of conduct
  • the adoption of a strong “prevention [of risk] through design” approach that is centred on the worker or user of the new technology
  • collaboration between academics, industry, social partners and governments in the research and development of digital and communication technologies to ensure that human factors are properly taken into account
  • employees should also be involved in the implementation of any digitalisation strategies.

To consider how these developments would change working life by 2025, the study built four scenarios based on differing societal, technological, economic, environmental and political contexts: Evolution, Transformation, Exploitation and Fragmentation.

The four scenarios form a grid around two axes: one reflecting governance and public attitudes ranging from resistive (low) to supportive (high); and the second reflecting economic growth and the degree of application of technology, from low to high.

Each scenario presents challenges and opportunities for occupational health and safety, says the report, depending the pace of change, levels of investment in safety research, and policy approaches to regulation, although some challenges would be present in all four scenarios.

For example, the Evolution scenario assumes low levels of economic growth and a supportive attitude to the introduction of new technology. The application of new technology and skills would be relatively slow, and left mainly to major international companies.

Under the Transformation scenario, reflecting higher economic growth, governments embrace the efficiencies offered by new technologies and find innovative ways of regulating new technologies and working patterns.

In contrast, the Exploitation scenario, based on high levels of growth but low levels of acceptance, foresees that governments lack the resources to ensure that regulatory frameworks keep up with the rapid pace of change.

In this situation, the economy is dominated by increased freelancing, as well as zero-hours and short-term contracts on the “gig model”.

The Fragmentation scenario is based on low levels of economic growth and application of technology, coupled with low levels of governance and “restive” attitudes to new technology on the part of workers and the general public.


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