HealthComplianceESGNovember 06, 2019

What are the future workplace safety and health risks?

What will the future of work look like?
What will it mean for the future of safety and health?
What are the potential safety and health risks in the future?

These are some of the questions that a report by the International Labour Organization, Safety and Health at the Heart of the Future of Work, aims to answer.

To understand what types of safety and health risks may lie ahead, we need first to understand the major transformations that are changing the world of work. The ILO report identifies four major changes:

  • Technology
  • Demographics
  • Sustainable development and OSH
  • Changes in work organization

Based on these major changes, the report highlights safety and health risks that may surface or become more prominent. Here’s a summary of these risks for each of the four categories.

1) Risks from technology

Digitalization, ICT (Information and Communications Technology), artificial intelligence, advanced analytics, robotics, autonomous vehicles, drones, smart devices, the Internet of Things (IoT), big data, cyber-physical systems, sensors, etc. are all becoming increasingly common.

A positive consequence of these technologies is to prevent humans from performing dangerous tasks. Think about drone inspections at heights or in hazardous environments, or robots that take over dangerous manual tasks in hazardous situations (e.g. handling chemicals). Also, robots and exoskeletons can reduce ergonomic risks by performing (or helping to perform) dangerous or routine tasks that can cause MSDs.

However, technology can also increase psychosocial risks. Think about smart devices and wearables that track and monitor what workers do, creating stress associated with the perceived loss of autonomy or privacy. As technology increasingly permeates the workplace, its impact on work-related stress and psychological health must also be assessed.

Moreover, regarding robotics, there have been cases of injuries and fatalities as a result of contact or interaction between workers and robots or robotic machines. It is therefore important to properly assess new safety hazards and risks that could be introduced with robotics.

2) Risks from demographic changes

The global workforce is constantly changing. In some parts of the world, young populations are expanding, while in others, populations are ageing. It’s important to know what these demographic changes mean for occupational safety and health.

Some parts of the world, like Africa and South Asia, have very large young populations entering the workforce. Companies with operations or factories in such areas, or that employ young workers in general, must be conscious that young workers experience much higher rates of injury than older workers.

According to European data, non-fatal injury at work was more than 40% higher among workers ages 18 to 24 than among older workers (EU-OSHA, 2007). In the U.S., the risk that young workers below 24 years old will suffer a non-fatal occupational injury is approximately twice as high as that for workers 25 or above (CDC, 2010).

On the other hand, an ageing population means an ageing workforce. According to the ILO report, as population growth slows down, the overall effect will be an ageing global workforce. Many of today’s workers can expect to work much later in life, while employers are expecting increasingly older workforces.

Some physical and cognitive capacities may start to decline in older age, as a result of natural aging processes, leading to greater risks. For example, slips, trips and falls are more common among older workers and the resulting injuries are more likely to result in hospitalization, fatalities and fractures, the report says. This means that specific safety and health risks may require extra attention.

3) Risks from climate change

Unless things change dramatically, the future will be characterized by rising temperatures, changing precipitation patterns and more extreme weather events. New diseases and health risks will also emerge. Climate change and environmental deterioration will shape safety and health at work and the actions that are needed to protect workers.

It’s estimated that a projected increase in the global temperature of 1.5°C by the end of this century will render 2% of all work hours as too hot to work by 2030, the report says. Workers engaged in outdoor activities and exposed to the sun and/or engaged in physical activities face the highest risk, especially those in agriculture, construction, fishing and forestry. Construction workers will account for 19% of working hours lost due to heat stress in 2030, according to the report.

Higher temperatures lead to an increase in related health effects, including: heat stroke, heat exhaustion, weaker chemical tolerance, fatigue, weaker cognitive function, increased risk of injury or safety lapses, changed responses to exposure to chemical and biological hazards, dehydration, increased burden of respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, and a weakened immune function.

Heat-related safety risks will be worse in workplaces with poor ventilation or a lack of cooling systems. They will also be worse regarding work that involves heat-generation processes or work that requires PPE (i.e. there’s a risk that workers may be less likely to wear PPE properly to avoid getting too hot).

4) Risks from changes in work organization

Today, many employees are working longer hours because of changing work arrangements or low wages. Long hours are associated with fatigue, which can lead to an increased risk of incidents, health problems such as cardiovascular disease, anxiety, depression, and sleeping disorders.

Also, a growing number of people are now involved in temporary, part-time, contract, independent, or irregular work, such as workers in the gig economy. These types of work, sometimes called “non-standard forms of employment” (NSE), offer flexibility and autonomy, but also result in insecurity, ranging from job and income insecurity to a lack of employment, social and OSH protections, according to the ILO report.

Moreover, injury rates among temporary and temporary agency workers can be considerably higher because workers are hired to do hazardous tasks that permanent workers don’t want to do, and/or because they are young and inexperienced, the report says. Also, non-standard workers usually have less access to training, which is key to prevent accidents.

In addition to injury and accident risks, NSE are also associated with psychosocial risks. Having an involuntarily temporary or part-time job may lead to stress arising from perceptions of job insecurity. The ILO report says that NSE are also associated with higher levels of fatigue, thus increasing risks for fatigue-related incidents.

Read the full ILO report to learn more about the future of work and the future of safety and health. 

Content Thought Leader - Wolters Kluwer Enablon

Jean-Grégoire Manoukian is Content Thought Leader at Wolters Kluwer Enablon. He’s responsible for thought leadership, content creation, and the management of Enablon insights articles and social media activities. Jean-Grégoire started at Enablon in 2014 as Content Marketing Manager, and has more than 25 years of experience, including many years as a product manager for chemical management and product stewardship solutions. He also worked as a product marketing manager.

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