Future working, future risks – why we need a debate around AI, new tech and health and safety

A robot stocks a shelf during RoboCup, Japan

Technology is transforming both our work and leisure lives, bringing opportunities but also risks, predominantly around precarious working, “always on” organisational cultures and increased automation. And health and safety and health and wellbeing need to be very much a part of this discussion, suggests Matthew Holder

The speed at which technology and the way we work are changing has led many to refer to our current period as the “Industrial Revolution 4.0”. Automation, artificial intelligence and a working style that can be more impactful on our mental than our physical health have all combined to create major changes in the everyday life of the working person.

About the author

Matthew Holder is head of campaigns and engagement at the British Safety Council

Since the Health and Safety at Work Act was introduced in 1974, fatal and non-fatal workplace injuries have dropped by 85% and 58% respectively. But historical ignorance of dangerous materials means that thousands of people still die every year from illnesses that could have been prevented. With new materials and technologies being introduced all the time, it is vital that we continue to educate ourselves on the physical and psychological risks that come with development.

Today’s workplace

In our recent Future Risk report, RobertsonCooper’s Sir Cary Cooper CBE said: “The future of work, at least for the next 10 or 20 years, was set by the recession. It has had a prolonged impact that has created a workplace where there are fewer people doing more work.”

The report also highlighted Britain’s “gig economy” – or the culture of short-term and zero hours contracts leaving workers with a lack of security. The UK job market has become more fluid and more freelanced, raising questions about whether the skills currently required for modern working will still be relevant in decades to come.

While workplaces have become safer and more risk-aware in recent years, the psychological impact of job instability and longer hours worked is taking its toll. The UK lost an estimated 12.5 million working days to poor mental health in 2017, accounting for almost 50% of all absence. This marks a clear need for improved wellbeing strategies, not just to tackle existing issues but to safeguard for a future where this figure seems otherwise set to increase.

Automation, AI and ICT

The Health and Safety Executive has indicated that 11 million jobs – or more – may become surplus in the next 20 years as a result of automation in industries such as automotives and electronics.

Changing technology in many cases already involves what some refer to as “co-bots”, robotics and automated processes that still require human collaboration.

As well as minimising opportunities for human error, new technology can allow dangerous tasks to be taken off an employee’s to-do list. From a health and safety perspective the minimising of physical risk is key, but for many workers the fear of being replaced by machines will only continue to grow in the near future.

In addition to this, questions are raised about the materials we work with. It seems unlikely that another asbestos crisis could happen now, but potential risks associated with new nanotechnologies need to be pre-empted and prevented.

Other technological changes in our working lives have come from ICT – portable technologies and high-speed browsing that mean many workers never truly “switch off” when their working day is done. For a growing number of employees, the work-life balance is becoming poorly weighted, with concerns about job security driving staff to overwork themselves, and preventing them from expressing concerns about their working lives.

Mitigating risk

According to research by REBA, the number of organisations with a wellbeing strategy grew 20% last year to a total of 45% overall. Employee Assistance Programmes, health screenings and discounted gym memberships are common offerings being made to try and boost staff morale and wellbeing, but businesses must take a forward-thinking, people-centred approach to mitigate future risks.

While flexible working in the extreme can feel insecure, an element of flexibility helps to provide a better work-life balance and increase feelings of trust between employers and employees. The value of supporting employee mental health has been proven, with a wellbeing project from South Liverpool Homes decreasing employee absence by 54% in its first year and saving them £25,000 in lost working days. Somerset County Council’s £500,000 stress reduction programme is also a well-publicised success, saving them £1.9 million over a three-year period thanks to increased staff engagement, attendance and productivity.

More than half of UK employers currently have no wellbeing strategy in place, something that will have to change to ensure the protection and support of the working community ongoing. As well as keeping up with developments and training in physical risks, employers must start to view the mental health of their staff in the same way and to champion psychological wellbeing with the same sense of urgency and importance.

According to British Safety Council chief executive Mike Robinson: “Whether it’s 24/7 working, the ‘gig’ economy or the drive towards automation, our mental and physical health, even our very sense of self, is at risk.

“Safety has not gone away either in the future world of work, with the physical risks of working in close proximity with robots calling for new thinking in design, training and regulation,” he adds.

Across all industries, a need for better quality employment and a clearer understanding of risk is crucial. Chasing to catch up with the pace of innovation is not enough – businesses of all sizes must consider how automation and always-on technology can and will affect their staff, and work to stay ahead of the curve.


Future risk report: The impact of work on health, safety and wellbeing, British Safety Council, https://www.britsafe.org/campaigns-policy/future-risk/report/

Work-related Stress, Depression or Anxiety Statistics in Great Britain 2017, HSE, November 2017, http://www.hse.gov.uk/statistics/causdis/stress/stress.pdf

Employee Wellbeing Research 2018: Staff mental health and pressure at work top concerns for UK CEOs, March 2018, https://reba.global/content/reba-wellbeing-research-2018-employee-mental-health-and-pressure-at-work-top-concerns-for-uk-ceos

Growing the health and well-being agenda: From first steps to full potential, CIPD case study, January 2016, https://www.cipd.co.uk/Images/well-being-report-case-study_2016_tcm18-10457.pdf

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