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What Workplace Safety in 2020 and Beyond Will Look Like | 14th August 2019

The year 2020 feels like the year of amazing things and rapid transition. It’s like this year 2019 we’re just warming up and preparing for the huge events that will happen in 2020 and beyond (e.g. Expo 2020 Dubai, Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics and the ambitious targets and projects in Australia to be completed next year).

The nature of work and most industries are also fast evolving. We don’t even have to wait for 2020 because robotics, automation and artificial intelligence are already changing the way we work and live. In addition, with that evolution are changes in how we view workplace safety in 2020 and beyond.

Effect of robotics and automation on workplace safety

Robots and automated systems have made numerous laborious tasks faster, more efficient and safer. Because fewer workers now are required in production facilities, warehouses and other potentially hazardous workplaces, this could also mean better safety because humans are absent in the first place.

However, robots and automated systems are only good at highly repetitive and predictable tasks. Human workers are still needed for delicate and complex tasks that require real-time action and insight. As a result, accidents are still possible and human lives are still at stake. It seems human touch will still be required for many years to come.

Good thing is that we’re now able to distance ourselves from several hazardous tasks and environments. Advanced cameras, drones and robotics can do the probes and some tasks instead of risking lives. We’ve already come a long way when it comes to improving safety by taking advantage of new and cost-effective technologies. Expect this to be more prevalent in the future even in small and medium-sized businesses. Robots and AI will soon reach smaller businesses because of how modern technologies get more affordable for almost everyone.

That level of automation though has its consequences especially if we talk about employment. This job uncertainty affects the mental health and overall performance of most workers. The combined effect of job uncertainty and workplace stress can have a detrimental effect on workplace safety. In addition, workers’ health might suffer on the long term because of stress. This affects both blue-collar and white-collar employees because they’re in stressful and potentially hazardous environments.

White-collar employees also get affected because of sedentary behaviour and rising daily screen time. Being seated almost all day and practicing other forms of sedentary behaviour increase the risk of cardiovascular disease and diabetes. Right now there might be more than 1 million people with diagnosed diabetes in Australia (source: National Health Survey conducted by the Australian Bureau of Statistics). Diabetes and cardiovascular disease are becoming a more serious concern in developed and more affluent societies (“diseases of affluence”).

We can see related trends here. Modern problems (diseases of affluence, mental health issues) affect both our overall living and workplace experience. As societies and industries develop, new challenges sprout that might be displacing the old threats and hazards. As a result, we will need new approaches and strategies in dealing with those new challenges.

New challenges in workplace safety

Better efficiency and automation has resulted to higher productivity levels and higher standards of living. These even resulted to better workplace safety (together with implementing higher standards and as new risks are identified and managed) as fatalities get lower each year (source: Safe Work Australia).

But new threats, hazards and challenges continue to appear and these might be the focus for 2020 and beyond. It’s still important to improve physical safety and minimise the hazards in workplaces (especially in chemical and industrial facilities). Expect though that more attention will go to new threats and challenges as we become more aware of mental health issues and the long-term effects of workplace stress.

For example, although modern technologies have made us more productive and competitive, rising expectations in performance have caused us to feel more stressful and somehow it encouraged to blur the lines between work and home. As a result, we’re becoming restless because we’re just one email away and the pressures and responsibilities at work never leave us even if we’re lying on our beds. Technology has allowed us to achieve a more productive and safer workplace but it’s also technology that’s making us feel more stressed the entire day.

Physical and environmental hazards that are now easy to identify and manage (e.g. a splash of corrosive sodium hydroxide can instantly cause severe burns, hydrofluoric acid can immediately affect a person’s eyes, skin and lungs). In contrast, the effects of workplace stress are still unclear because of their insidious and long-term effects. Furthermore, we’re just recently beginning to understand the effect of modern work and environment to our long-term physical and mental health. And as our industries are becoming more computer-oriented, we’re spending more and more hours in a sitting position. For example, white-collar professionals sit down for at least 22 hours per week (which exceeds the average sitting times for most blue-collar occupations). We also have to keep in mind that some blue-collar occupations (e.g. driving a truck or heavy equipment) require extended periods of sitting in addition to being exposed to environmental hazards.

Back then workplace safety is about protecting ourselves from physical, chemical, biological and other hazards present in the workplace and in the immediate environment. But in recent years more emphasis is now being placed on insidious, gradual and long-term hazards and threats such as sedentary behaviour (e.g. >22 hours working while sitting, >9 hours screen time) and mental health issues. After all, these also affect the workers’ health, performance and safety.

For 2020 and beyond expect more attention on the modern challenges and threats workers face when it comes to safety. Physical safety is still important (and the most immediate concern) but stress and mental health issues can no longer be ignored. The essentials should always be covered (e.g. wearing PPE and using safety workwear and devices when working at heights and in hazardous and unpredictable environments) but we now have to take a more holistic and integrated approach in workplace safety by also thinking about the new challenges workers face.