There are three significant trends impacting the practice of OHS, and professionals will need to think more systematically about health and safety issues that will arise as a result of these trends over the coming years.
The first trend is technological disruption, which will impact a range of areas both in and outside of the business world, said Peter Gahan, director of the Centre for Workplace Leadership and professor of management at the University of Melbourne.
“Technology is a key driver of the future, because of its effects and how it will disrupt the way things are done,” he said.
“We know there are a lot of things happening around this, from how automation is creating and destroying jobs, through to more disruptive impacts and start-ups like Uber and Airbnb, on established incumbents.”
Gahan, who was speaking ahead of the annual SIA National Safety Convention, which will be held from 6 to 7 September 2016 in Sydney, said technology will also increase scope for virtual work or telework to a range of different areas.
“There are some potential workplace health and safety issues that need to be addressed as a consequence of those,” he said.
Another significant trend is around the rise and fall of specific jobs, according to Gahan, who said this will be linked to emerging consumer demand for specific goods and services.
“For example, we know we’ve got an aging population, and with that, an aging workforce, a more age diverse workforce,” he said.
There are a number of services that an aging population will want, and Gahan said the delivery of these services will not be replaced by robots.
“These are often person to person type services, and individuals will be involved in the delivery of those,” he said.
“Having a more age diverse workforce presents a range of different challenges for organisations, including some OHS ones, particularly in occupations that have a degree of physical or manual components to the way they work.”
Gahan gave the example of the building and construction industry, and noted that while technology is going to change this to a degree, the nature of the work itself and its impact on workers will not change significantly.
“You would imagine that for many building and construction workers, by the time they’re hitting their mid-40s even, they’re beginning to experience some physical deterioration as a consequence of the nature of their work,” he said.
“So their quality of work might not suffer, but you would have thought their physical capabilities to do that work are likely to diminish.
“And if you have an aging workforce, then there’s a bigger proportion of that workforce that faces those sorts of challenges.
“It’s not just building and construction workers, but this applies to other sectors as well – think about hospitals with surgeons, nurses and other medical professionals, so there are a whole range of different occupations where the aging of the workforce matters.”
Similarly, Gahan also said that issues such as global warming and environmental change mean that natural resources will become more valuable with their use and protection.
“A range of sources predict that there are a number of jobs that are likely to emerge in certain areas of natural resources, urban planning and urban environments,” he said.
“Those sorts of jobs potentially raise very different occupational health and safety type issues.”
Another significant issue in the future will be population growth, and Gahan said that cities around the world will continue to get bigger.
“Sydney, for example, is about to hit 5 million, and Melbourne is catching up and also about to hit 5 million,” he said.
“These are big cities, and this is a phenomena happening around the world. We are seeing large cities get larger, and small cities get smaller.
“It means that when you’ve got really large cities, to get infrastructure to work, it’s got to be better and there’s got to be more of it.
“So building and construction is a growth industry, but think about where we locate workers in large growing cities.
“If we’re focusing in on CBD areas as core points for people to work, then, obviously, you’ve got issues around transport, commuting, safety and a whole range of issues that are likely to have a whole range of consequences for workplace health and safety.
“A lot of organisations are beginning to think about, ‘how do we distribute our workforce differently as cities get larger? Can we utilise different types of teleworking, or distributive working to make that more effective?’”
“So workplace health and safety probably needs to be thought about more systematically in light of these issues, and the OHS issues that are likely to arise as a result.”
The SIA National Safety Convention will be held from 6 to 7 September 2016 at Sydney Showground, Sydney Olympic Park. For more information visit the convention website.