How will digital technologies affect OHS and the future of work?

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.
Thursday, 9 June, 2022 - 12:30
Industry news
National News

While digital technologies bring opportunities for work and society, augmenting human performance and taking on “dull, dirty and dangerous work”, such technologies could potentially eradicate employment opportunities for some workers and lead to the creation of work that is more intense, lacking in control and extensively monitored.

When it comes to digital technologies such as artificial intelligence and machine learning, the work-related question that has had the most attention is whether there will be any human work left, said Sharon Parker, John Curtin distinguished professor in organisational behaviour in the faculty of business and law at Curtin University.

“There has clearly been wider scale application of digital technologies into knowledge work (such as accounting, decision-making etc) which has resulted in a lot of fear about large-scale unemployment, prompting questions about basic income and other such supports into the future,” she said.

“However, there are several reasons to suspect that large-scale unemployment is not likely to occur.”

In particular, what has occurred historically, is the type of work and jobs will change, said Parker, who was speaking ahead of the 2022 Dr Eric Wigglesworth AM Memorial Lecture, which will be held on Thursday 23 June at the SMC Sydney Masonic Centre, said that while digital technologies will automate some jobs (or elements of them), new jobs will emerge and existing jobs will change.

In terms of how jobs will change, she said increasingly some of the tasks within a job will be done by digital, and some will be done by humans.

“So the topic of work design will become increasingly important, as we seek to figure out how machines and humans can work together in the most optimal ways,” said Parker, who added there are significant implications for OHS in these challenges.

“If we get these decisions wrong, about how machines and humans work together in optimal ways, there are potentially catastrophic consequences such as the Boeing 737 max crashes,” she said.

“There are also negative smaller-scale consequences that are not as attention-grabbing but nevertheless insidious, such as worker disengagement and lowered well-being.”

An example of the latter comes from many applications of algorithmic management (where managerial decisions such as performance management and task allocation are carried out by algorithms), which she said evidence shows frequently make work more intense and take away worker control (which is a recipe for stress).

These implications need to be carefully considered and managed through a sociotechnical approach, which means giving attention to human work issues and technology issues, said Parker.

“Most attention traditionally is given to technology issues, with a goal being to replace human work as much as possible,” said Parker.

“But for success, often better outcomes are achieved if the focus is on thinking about how social (or human) and technical aspects are jointly optimised; the basic tenant of sociotechnical systems theory.

“This means, for example, proactively considering work design when technology is implemented. It also means recognising that technology sometimes needs to be modified to fit humans better.”

Parker said OHS professionals should ensure they have a good grounding in work design as well as concepts like systems thinking.

OHS professionals should also recognise that many applications of digital technologies have not had sufficient attention to how those technologies will work in complex organisational and human systems.

“The latter means there will need to be close attention to the human risks, ideally addressed proactively, before technologies are implemented,” she said.

“Unfortunately, I don’t think we’ve got the models and frameworks yet to fully understand what the risks are, so more research – and then the translation of that research – is something to advocate for.”

Parker will be speaking at the 2022 Dr Eric Wigglesworth AM Memorial Lecture, which will be held at the SMC Sydney Masonic Centre on Thursday 23 June from 7:30-9:30 AEST. The event will also be live-streamed and incorporates the presentation of the 2021 AIHS National OHS Education Award winners. For more information please call (03) 8336 1995, email or visit the event website.