Digitalisation is rapidly changing the world of work and requires new and updated occupational safety and health (OSH) solutions. The research programme of the European Agency for Safety and Health (EU-OSHA) aims to provide policy-makers, researchers and workplaces with reliable information on the potential impacts of digitalisation on OSH so they can take timely and effective action to ensure workers are safe and healthy.
The emergence of technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), big data, collaborative robotics, the internet of things, algorithms, digital labour platforms and, at the same time, an important increase in the population working remotely brings opportunities for workers and employers but also new challenges and risks for OSH. Addressing the challenges and risks and maximising the opportunities depends on how technologies are applied, managed and regulated in the context of social, political and economic trends.
Building upon its foresight study on digitalisation and OSH, EU-OSHA is running an ‘OSH overview’ research project (2020-2023) to provide in-depth information for policy, prevention and practice in relation to the challenges and opportunities of digitalisation in the context of OSH.
It focuses on the following areas:
- Advanced robotics and artificial intelligence
AI-based systems and advanced robotics are transforming how human labour is designed and performed. Such systems that are either embodied (for example, robotics) or non-embodied (for example, smart applications) are enabled to carry out actions – with some degree of autonomy – to perform either physical or cognitive tasks and achieve specific goals.
This has significant positive implications, not only in terms of business productivity but also for OSH. For example, workers can be removed from hazardous environments and tasks, and the workload can be optimised. Such systems can perform the high-risk or non-creative repetitive tasks, which are associated with a number of traditional and emerging OSH risks, leaving the low-risk tasks and productive or even creative job content to the workers.
Nevertheless, a number of challenges for OSH in relation to the use of these AI-based systems in the workplace, mainly originating from the interaction of such systems with the workers, like unexpected collisions, overreliance and so on, but also related to psychosocial and organisational aspects, do exist and need to be addressed.
Research in this area identifies and discusses the opportunities as well as the challenges and the risks associated with the use of advanced robotics and AI-based systems for the automation of tasks, both physical and cognitive, highlighting a number of additional issues including human-machine interaction and trust.
- Worker management through artificial intelligence
AI and digital technologies have given rise to new forms of managing workers. Unlike earlier forms of management that largely rely on human supervisors, worker management using AI refers to new management systems and tools that collect real-time data about workers’ behaviours from various sources with the purpose of informing management and supporting automated or semi-automated decisions based on algorithms or more advanced forms of AI.
Research in this area identifies and discusses the opportunities provided by these new systems for AI-based management, as they can support decisions aimed at improving OSH in the workplace when they are built and implemented in a transparent way and workers are informed and consulted.
The research also maps and discusses the legal, regulatory, ethical and privacy challenges and risks, as well as the concerns for OSH, particularly in terms of psychosocial risk factors that these novel forms of monitoring and managing workers also give rise to.
- Digital platform work
Digital platform work is all paid work provided through, on or mediated by an online platform, that is, an online marketplace operating on digital technologies that facilitate the matching of demand for and supply of labour. The work provided through the platforms can be very diverse: it can involve complex or simple tasks, cognitive or manual tasks, and it can be provided online and be entirely virtual, or on-site and be provided in person.
Digital platform work brings employment opportunities to workers in geographical areas where such opportunities are lacking or to marginalised groups of workers, but it also entails a number of challenges and risks for workers’ OSH that need to be addressed.
Research projects in the area of platform work aim at:
- analysing and discussing opportunities, challenges and risks of platform work;
- mapping types of platform work and related risks and opportunities;
- identifying examples of policies to prevent OSH risks for platform workers; and
- supporting the development of practical tools for OSH prevention.
- Smart digital systems
New monitoring systems for workers’ safety and health, such as smartphone apps, wearables, mobile monitoring cameras or drones, smart glasses, ICT-based applications and smart Personal Protective Equipment is developed with the aim to monitor and enhance OSH. They can be used, for example, with the aim to monitor workers’ physiological or mental state, such as level of stress, fatigue, alertness and heart rate, as well as posture and body movement, to monitor workers’ location in dangerous areas, instruct workers, or alert workers’ managers or even emergency services. Next to their opportunities for OSH, there are concerns as well, for example related to data privacy, ownership issues, efficacy and standardisation.
In this study we assess their implications by analysing types of new monitoring systems (technologies), their use (for example, supporting OSH compliance, effective enforcement or training), and the OSH challenges and opportunities associated with their implementation and design. An overview is also provided of workplace resources (for example, codes of practice, company-level policies, recommendations, guidance, protocols and training).
The study consists of a desk study, interviews and field studies. In 2023, a high-level workshop is organised to consolidate the findings.
- Remote work
Remote work is any type of working arrangement involving the use of digital technologies to work from home or more generally away from the employer’s premises or in a fixed location. Remote work brings along opportunities, challenges and risks, which are worth bearing in mind when thinking of future developments, including implications for the gender and diversity dimensions of the workforce, and the different impact across sectors and occupations, in addition to the new and emerging technologies, including augmented reality and virtual reality, which are expected to have a role in making remote work available to a greater number of businesses and workers.
A number of projects in this area, which also build on previous EU-OSHA research, map the opportunities, the challenges and the risks of remote working, and they aim at raising awareness among remote workers, employers and other relevant stakeholders.
EU-OSHA’s Healthy Workplaces Campaign Safe and Healthy Work in the Digital Age, running from 2023 to 2025, raises awareness of digitalisation and OSH and provides more practical resources.