Six trends that will impact the future of workplace health and safety (WHS)

csiro report megatrends future whs

As new technology changes the nature of work, the future of WHS must balance the benefits of automation with the risks of a dispersed, ageing workforce, according to a 2018 report by the CSIRO.

The report identified six megatrends that persons conducting a business or undertaking (PCBUs) should be planning for as their workplaces change.

The report highlights emerging technologies as a major factor in the future of workplace health and safety, and says workplaces will face challenges including a transition to service-based employment, a more sedentary lifestyle and shifting demographics.

Workplaces will get better, smarter robots:

According to the report, there were an estimated 1.9 million industrial robots around the world in 2017, and this number is set to grow.

A more automated workplace is likely to reduce work-related injuries and issues, with “physical and psychological workplace injury… predicted to fall by 11 per cent by 2030.” Machines will be able to operate in dangerous environments, like factory floors and laboratories, without risk to human safety.

Automation isn’t completely foolproof though and as with human workers, PCBUs should plan for margins of “artificial intelligence error”.

Workplace stress and mental health issues will rise:

It’s estimated that workplace stress affects around 32 per cent of all Australians and a study by the Australian Psychological Society says stress is a significant factor in workplace performance.

The CSIRO report found that in 2014–15, a typical work-related mental stress claim cost almost ten times as much as was the typical cost across all claims.

Technology is also a factor. Increased employee monitoring, rising expectations of performance and productivity, working outside of business hours and lack of human interaction can all have an impact on employees’ mental health.

Less active workplaces will lead to chronic illness and inactivity:

Changes to the economy and rising automation will drive a shift from production- to service-oriented workplaces, which often means desk jobs.

Many blue-collar occupations are in decline, including technical and trades workers (-12.2%) and machinery operators and drivers (-15.9%). People who previously worked in these roles may find themselves leading more sedentary lifestyles with more screen time.

The report says this kind of behaviour has been associated with an increased risk of obesity, diabetes, heart and cardiovascular disease, and premature mortality.

Work-life balance may be harder to maintain:

Advances in technology mean more flexible working arrangements, with cloud computing, tele-networks and 5G data networks helping to get things done remotely.

While that may be a good thing, tele-work can blur the boundaries between work and home. PCBUs may find they have limited visibility of remote worker activity but better accountability overall through productivity tracking and smart devices.

The CSIRO report says a worker can be ‘at work’ under the model WHS Act, meaning their employer can be liable for work-related incidents that occur in the home. Identifying and managing these risks using traditional models like the Hierarchy of Control could become more difficult, so new approaches may be needed.

The gig economy will keep growing:

Generally, gig workers are classified as independent contractors, meaning they are not entitled to the traditional benefits of employment.

Independent contractors are usually responsible for their own insurances. In contrast, PCBUs may have WHS obligations alongside the gig worker’s own responsibilities. A lack of industry regulation means rights and entitlements are often determined on a case-by-case basis.

Gig workers with less specific tasks are likely to encounter more risks. However, they do not have the specialised knowledge they need to manage them. In the US, some groups of gig workers have unionised to balance these risks, and Australians may follow suit.

Workforces will keep getting older:

According to the CSIRO report, Australia’s retirement savings gap is the fourth-largest in the world. It means many of us are working longer than ever before.

Clearly, this new era of automation and robotics will give businesses ways to improve access and productivity. Therefore older workers can remain active in their roles with reduced strain, minimising their risk of physical and mental injury. This might include new assistive aids, flexible workplace environments and assistance with menial tasks.

Currently work-related injuries and illness rates drop considerably for the oldest workers, however those aged 50-54 have the highest rate.  Age-based discrimination may also mean that older workers may be more likely to become victims of workplace bullying.


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