“Technology is a key driver of the future, because of its effects and how it will disrupt the way things are done.” Peter Gahan, Director of the Centre for Workplace Leadership
That new technologies are changing the way we live won’t come as news to anyone. After all technology saturates every aspect of our lives – home, leisure, exercise, travel, education, entertainment. It’s at work, however, that some of the most dramatic and far-reaching effects are being experienced. We are already seeing the impact of automated tasks, increased digitisation and a move toward a gig economy. But we need to prepare also for what’s on the horizon: major advances in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR) and cyber-physical systems.
These changes will inevitably affect the legislation around workplace health and safety as well as the reality of health and safety on the ground. Work Safety Australia has partnered with the CSIRO’s Data61 to produce a report that examines exactly what these changes and impacts will be and how we can prepare for them.
The report identifies six ‘mega trends’. Sounds serious, right? Well, it is. But it’s exciting too because of the opportunities those trends will create. Let’s take a look at them:
- The extending reach of automated systems and robotics
As the cost of these technologies decreases, their capabilities increase and with them, their ability to take over tasks that people have previously done.
- Increasing workplace stress and mental health issues
New technologies can both contribute to a rise in stress, anxiety and depression in the workplace and act as tools to help alleviate those conditions. It’s all in the way they are applied.
- Rising screen time, sedentary behaviour and chronic illness
Screen time has increased dramatically for both adults and children and, as manual jobs become more heavily automated, people’s jobs are more and more sedentary. The rise of diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes must be considered in this context.
- Blurring the boundaries between work and home
Larger numbers of workers are entering into arrangements that allow them to work full or part time from home which can disrupt the more traditional boundaries between work and home life.
- The gig and entrepreneurial economy
The increase in freelance task-based work that can take place online sees a disruption to the traditional employment models.
- An ageing workforce
An ageing population makes for an ageing workplace and older workers are having to stay in jobs for longer.
Given these shifts and projected changes, we must ask ourselves whether our workplaces are ready from a health and safety perspective. Do work health and safety laws and codes of practice effectively cover, for example, freelancers who work in the ‘gig economy’? Are current health and safety frameworks able to accommodate the rise of automated systems and robotics in the workplace? What kind of new associated risks might there be to consider? What impact does technology in the workplace have on mental health and wellbeing and on a work/family balance? How can technologies be leveraged to build healthy work environments rather than undermine them?
While workplace scenarios are likely to be complex and informed by many factors, it’s not hard to guess at some of the ways in which technology now and in the future will impact the work health and safety frameworks of our workplaces in both positive and negative ways. For example:
|Possible negative impacts||Possible positive impacts|
These are just a few possibilities – the CSIRO report details numerous such aspects of the changing face of technology and safety in the workplace – but many of them can be addressed now and workplaces who are committed to maintaining a safe and healthy workplace will be doing just that by being vigilant in the provision of high quality training and the building of an engaged and supported workforce who can anticipate and prepare for those changes together.
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