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The Future of Work in the spotlight of the World OSH Day

Inspired by the ILO centenary anniversary, the world day for safety and health at work on 28 April 2019 looks to the future or work and its impact on occupational safety and health. In particular, the ILO has identified four areas: Technology, demographics, sustainable development, and work organisation.

We are seeing rapidly advancing technologies affect almost every aspect in the world of work. Digitalization, robotics, and the use of nanotechnology, among others, have revolutionized the workplace but have simultaneously raised serious OSH concerns.

The global workforce is in constant flux. In certain regions, youth populations are expanding, while in others, populations are ageing. Gender gaps in the labour market persist in both developed and developing countries, and women are more likely to work in non-standard work arrangements and in home-based platform work.

Human induced climate change is a major driver transforming the world of work. Air pollution from coal mining, for example, directly impacts the health of miners, but also indirectly affects workers’ health in other industries around them, as well as the general public. While the increase of green jobs and industries will promote low-carbon societies and may reduce hazardous work in traditional sectors such as mining, green jobs may also give rise to emerging and unknown risks, such as exposure to chemicals in the recycling sector.

The demands of an increasingly globalized world have led to a growing number of workers involved in excessive hours of work and non-standard forms of employment. The growth of the globalized platform economy has blurred the lines between home and work – on one hand reducing the stress associated with commuting and increasing self-reliance, while on the other hand, creating unique psychosocial pressures for workers attempting to balance the demands of work life and home based responsibilities.

Like the ILO, EU-OSHA is also looking at the future of work, although this may be a misnomer as these changes are happening now. Occupational safety and health bodies and professionals have to adapt to these changes and act to ensure that the changes do not have a negative impact on workers’ health and safety. 

This is not to say that change is only negative. Technological change may remove workers from dangerous situations, may improve job quality (by reducing the number of monotonous tasks), and can improve work/life balance (e.g. by working from home using ICT).

Labour inspectorates may see benefits, through the effective use of aggregated data, implementing non-traditional compliance approaches, offering digital access to training (e.g. webinars), providing tools for compliance monitoring (risk assessment tools), better environmental monitoring, and improved work recording (using laptops/tablets) to record inspections.

However, all too often changes in the workplace do not stop the worker from paying the price for poor prevention. This is tragic and regrettable because, as research and practice over the past century has repeatedly demonstrated, this suffering is largely preventable.

EU-OSHA has carried out much work relating to the future of work. In particular, the Agency has been looking at digitalisation and the impact of the platform “gig” economy.

Robotics, is a rapidly changing topic as we are now letting the robots “out of the cage”. Until recently, robots were isolated in their manufacturing role, segregated from workers to avoid accidents. Now the robot (AI) may be your boss or co-worker! This change may have a benefit to workers’ safety and health (e.g. by removing the worker from a confined or otherwise dangerous location) but also may have an impact on the psychosocial wellbeing of the worker. 

Other areas of work by EU OSHA include:

A more general theme that needs further investigation is the use of “big data”. This offers great potential for organisations to become more effective, but there are downsides depending on how it is used. Not only privacy issues, but there are dangers in information overload and a potential impact on critical decision-making.

Work is ever-changing and the need to protect workers is not going to go away. The work of the ILO and EU-OSHA will continue to examine how we can gain the benefits of work without paying for it in human lives and human health.