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The digitalisation of work: its impact on psychosocial risk factors and work-related musculoskeletal disorders
The digitalisation of the economy has already considerably changed the nature and organisation of work across Europe. In the next ten years, more than half of Europe’s workforce will face significant job transitions.1 How can occupational safety and health policies, and particularly those preventing musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), adapt accordingly?
Emerging OSH challenges in a changing world of work
The digitalisation of the economy has brought about the spread of robotisation, new forms of work (for example remote work) and new forms of employment (such as digital platform work). With these changes come new and emerging occupational safety and health (OSH) challenges, altering the exposure workers have to the various biomechanical, organisational and psychosocial risk factors for work-related MSDs.
It is possible for increased automation to reduce physical and psychosocial workloads, but there is evidence that the opposite is occurring. In some work situations, it leads to an increase in task repetitiveness, pace of work, physical fatigue, cognitive workload and psychosocial demands. Key factors being the permanent electronic monitoring and surveillance of workers’ performance, and when algorithms set tasks and time targets. This can result in workers working too fast, or for too long, or cutting corners in terms of their safety, for example not following safe lifting procedures.
The proportion of workers experiencing cognitive overload, cognitive and physical fatigue, and various forms of ‘technostress’ will increase if attention is not given to planning substantive, human-centred work as digitalisation changes occur. The 2022 OSH Pulse Report revealed that digital technologies controlled the pace of work for over half of respondents, 37% said that they increase their workload, a third said that they increase surveillance and a fifth that they reduce their work autonomy. Given the established link between MSDs and PSRs, this will need to be factored into MSD prevention policies.
Identifying new opportunities for MSD prevention
There is, however, opportunity for digitalisation to enhance MSD prevention, depending on how the technology is implemented, managed and regulated. The development of suitable tools or procedures to monitor all specific risks related to digitalisation (including virtual work, telework and flexible working patterns) will be required. The key is human-centred design from the start, where human abilities are enhanced and humans remain in control, not the technologies. Technologies can also support risk prevention, such as a risk assessment app, enabling teleworkers to carry out remote checks on their workstation.
Further opportunities include reducing physically demanding, repetitive or routine tasks through the use of exoskeletons, robots and cobots. In the case of robots, it is important that the robot collaborates with the human, and does not just leave the workers with the mundane, often highly repetitive tasks. Also, there is potential to provide higher levels of autonomy and flexibility, reduction in commuting time thanks to teleworking, and better access to the labour market for ageing workers, disabled workers and those with care responsibilities at home. Although this will only be possible if OSH is considered as an integral part of the process of introducing digital changes to work. In one good practice example, technologies introduced to reduce the physical load on the workers could enable the work to be speeded up. But the employer decided against this to avoid worker stress.
Collaborating with a new digital workforce
These workplace changes, such as not being on the same site, means effective communication is more important than ever. Participatory interventions, ensuring the workforce understands how digital technologies are used and how they can result in high demands, is essential. If such policies are embedded in a strong prevention-oriented corporate culture, this will help ensure their success.
Prevention and management of psychosocial risks and MSDs need to be continuously adapted to the evolution of digital technologies and organisational changes. Innovative intervention designs should be promoted to adapt them to the diverse, dispersed and evolving populations working in ever-changing environments.
Discover more about the findings and resources of the OSH Overview on Digitalisation 2020-2023, which will form the basis of the upcoming Healthy Workplaces campaign: ‘Safe and healthy work in the digital age’
You can also search for case studies relevant to psychosocial risks, teleworking and more.
1. McKinsey Global Institute, 2020