How WHS regulators are keeping up with new ways of working

The following article is a news item provided for the benefit of the Workplace Health and Safety profession. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the Australian Institute of Health & Safety.
Friday, 25 March, 2022 - 12:45
Industry news
National News

Work, health and safety regulators are focusing on a number of priorities in order to meet the challenges associated with emerging ways of working and new work activities, according to the NSW Centre for Work Health and Safety.

New and emerging ways of working are a reflection of progress and innovation in the workplace, said Gregory Zelic, associate director of research and evaluation for the Centre for Work Health and Safety.

“Now taking this perspective, two immediate observations come to mind: 1) progress and innovation are not led by the OHS professional nor the regulator, so we are playing catch up, and 2) progress and innovation are not to be stopped, so we will be playing catch up for some time,” he said.

Several challenges can be drawn from these two observations, according to Zelic, who was speaking ahead of an AIHS webinar presentation which was held on Wednesday 6 April 2022.

He said the first one relates to the lack of understanding about the work health and safety implications of new and emerging ways of working.

“For good reasons, these are new or on the horizon and have therefore attracted limited scrutiny: the knowledge bank is thin,” said Zelic.

“The game of catch up is for both the OHS professional and the regulator who need to understand these new and emerging ways of working and the potential associated harms that they may present.”

To generate this knowledge, he said dedication is required to work through the associated changes to the definition of work, the roles and responsibilities, safety processes, the work environment and in the way work is conducted, and Zelic said this needs to be done with the collective expertise of both the OHS professional and the regulator.

A second challenge relates to the uncertainty that the systems and processes that are already in place will continue to be suitable for the new and emerging ways of working, and the necessity for the OHS professional and the regulator to reassess their ability to deliver the desired preventive and regulatory responses, and revise if required.

“To what extent can we transfer what already exists to appropriately prevent new potential harms and regulate the new and emerging ways of working? Do those reveal any gaps in our preventive and regulatory systems that need addressing?” Zelic said.

A third challenge is a direct consequence of the first two and refers to the notion of delay: playing catch up takes time, even more so when it involves revising systems and processes, or developing and testing new materials or solutions to specifically address the new and emerging way of working.

“Last but not least, there is a challenge in the ongoing nature of the new and emerging ways of working itself. The lack of visibility about what the next change will be limits the ability of the OHS professional and the regulator to anticipate,” said Zelic.

In addressing these challenges, Zelic said the priorities for the regulator and the OHS professional are clear: 1) to better understand the WHS implications of new and emerging ways of working, 2) reassess the appropriateness of existing systems, processes and actions towards those, and revise if necessary, and 3) prepare for the next generation of new and emerging ways of working.

“In the last few years, the Centre for Work Health and Safety and its future world of work program have done just that,” he said.

As part of this program, the centre is leading a series of projects examining the mechanisms of harm prevention in the workplaces of tomorrow and creating new knowledge and tools to support new work types, tech and work environments.

A number of tools have already been delivered, including a risk assessment tool for businesses introducing and using artificial intelligence systems in the workplace, a guide to enhance the psychological safety of flexible workers, and a road safety messaging intervention to improve the safety of drivers in the food delivery sector of the gig economy.

Zelic added guidelines will soon be released on how to better design and risk assess working space in shared robotic environments.

Part of the challenge in addressing tomorrow’s ways of working is the ability of the regulator and the OHS professional to leverage the tech itself and develop smarter, more effective solutions for the prevention of harm.

Zelic said the centre’s research and development expression of interest is a call to do just that, to support the development of innovative solutions targeting harm prevention, through the commercialisation of tangible and impactful intervention products and/or services.

The centre is also aiming to better understand the gaps and limitations of current regulatory systems in tackling and responding to new and emerging ways of working, and Zelic said the centre leads a key project, regulator readiness, which examines the future work environment from the perspective of the WHS regulator to better understand and plan for effective regulation of work in the future.

Zelic said the intent is to identify the constant gaps across the WHS regulatory systems in Australia and New Zealand (for example, in legislation, operational capability and regulatory policies, and to explore potential ways to address those gaps to enable a regulator that is ready and flexible enough to support continuously changing work practices).

There are a number of important implications in the above for OHS professionals, and Zelic said addressing the challenges of the new and emerging ways of working is a difficult task. “The first piece of advice would be to look out for work that has already been done, recently published evidence and materials,” he said.

“Your best shot is to start with the centre, as we regularly publish new content in this space, and deliver plug and play tools that can be used straight away.”

He also recommended watching out for the 23rd World Congress on Safety and Health at Work, which will be held in Sydney in November 2023 over three days.

“It presents a fantastic opportunity for collaboration, innovation, and learning to advance the protection of safe and healthy workplaces globally,” he said.

“The congress will cover a variety of topics that will give insights into what the future of health and safety might look like, from workplace robotics to psychosocial risks in the modern workplace.”