How work is done will involve more humans interacting with more machines and technology, and this is going to bring both new and unexpected challenges as well as opportunities for improving work, health and safety, according to Safe Work Australia CEO Michelle Baxter.
Factors such as the ageing workforce, automation, the rise of artificial intelligence, remote surveillance, telehealth, global communication and gig economy have demonstrated how industries, markets and workforces can change with astonishing speed, she said.
“We know that designing work safely from the outset is the most robust way of ensuring workers safety and it makes workplaces more efficient and more productive,” said Baxter, who referenced the recent Workplace Safety Futures report, prepared by the CSIRO for Safe Work Australia.
“And work is right now, as we speak, being redesigned.”
One of the most significant trends is that advanced automotive technologies will offer a plethora of challenges and opportunities in workplace safety.
“Robots are getting smarter, cheaper, more common. They’re going to become more prevalent in our working places. The cost is going to fall, we’re going to see them a lot more.
“But automation can make workplaces safer,” said Baxter, who gave the example of a regulator offering a virtual reality training package to farmers for improving quad bike safety.
Speaking at the recent WSH Conference in Singapore, Baxter said that while artificial intelligence and robots might be able to take on the load of repetitive, routine work that humans find boring – new types of work requiring different skills will evolve.
“This is going to have an impact on worker mental health,” she said.
“So, if machines can do the least stimulating, the least satisfying jobs in the workplace, the positions of value will increasingly be the ones involving more human-oriented traits such as interpersonal skills, creative reasoning, etcetera.”
However, this may result in people spending a greater proportion of their working lives on higher functioning and more stressful tasks.
“Additionally, we anticipate that automation will enable employers to more frequently deploy automated worker surveillance and time management systems. This could also cause stress for workers.”
Baxter also noted that sedentary behaviors are observed across most industries in Australia and can lead to chronic disease including depression, diabetes and cardiovascular disease.
Chronic disease is the leading cause of illness, disability and death in Australia, and she said sedentary work is increasing and will likely further increase as new technologies push humans away from physical work.
“As we look into the future, we see a trend towards a service-oriented economy that coincides with the growth in white collar occupations,” she said.
However, Baxter said “the most important thing is the work-related stress and mental health issues” which are increasing in the Australian workforce. “They cost more, it takes longer to treat people, it takes longer for people to return to work,” said Baxter, who noted that it is a significant issue which is common to the megatrends mentioned above.
“At Safe Work Australia we asked ourselves, does our current legal framework provide adequate guidance to employers regarding mental health in the workplace?
“The legal framework does provide guidance to employers in the workplace, but the feedback we were getting is employers wanted more information about how to comply with those duties and those responsibilities.”
Baxter said Safe Work Australia has developed a national guide to work related psychological health and safety, which sets out what the known causes of psychological injury in the workplace are, as well as what employers can do in the workplace to try and prevent psychosocial injuries.
She said Safe Work Australia has a desire to move beyond compliance and work towards embedding work, health and safety best practice in all Australian workplaces.
“I’m emphasising this because by focussing on best practice over compliance, we keep the most important thing front and centre, and that’s the inalienable right of a worker, regardless of their occupation or how they’re engaged to a healthy and safe working environment,” she said.