Preparing Now for the Future of Work: Implications for Safety and Health

New buildings and evolving workplaces also have offered employers opportunities to focus on employee wellness through smart ventilation and …

Are you ready for the demographic, economic, and technological realities of the future of work? Benefits and challenges involving work, the workforce, and the workplace are coming, and now is the time to prepare.

Future of work

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There is renewed interest in researching and developing interventions for the future of work. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently released what it calls its “foundational paper” in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine on future-of-work issues and approaches to addressing them.

You may already be seeing changes in demographics, organizational design, and work arrangements, especially as many job functions have become and remain remote in the midst of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic. Technologies, including artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics, may displace some workers but require others to pick up new skills to take on new roles.

NIOSH’s research may be looking into issues that may not directly affect your day-to-day operations—issues like technological job displacement and job insecurity. Occupational safety and health (OSH) and industrial hygiene researchers have long been interested in issues that directly affect worker well-being, like income security, access to health insurance, work/life or work/family balance, and paid time off.

If the future of work exacerbates issues surrounding work arrangements; economic security; work/family balance; and the overall safety, health, and well-being of the workforce, it may result in a push for new legislation, regulation, or taxes.

Future of Work Initiative

NIOSH launched its Future of Work Initiative in 2019, applying its Total Worker Health (TWH) approach to emerging and growing workplace safety and health issues. NIOSH has funded or directed multidisciplinary research and communications, and it has formed partnerships throughout the institute and with other government agencies and organizations to identify research opportunities and practical approaches to addressing the future of work.

NIOSH has chosen to develop its futures-oriented capacity, prioritizing research into possible scenarios, planning to shape the future of work by helping stakeholders anticipate those possible scenarios and their impact, and offering recommendations for handling those scenarios.

Issues beginning to affect work, the workforce, and the workplace include the availability or lack of resources, changing demographics, disaster and emergency preparedness and response, extreme weather conditions, globalization, new exposures and hazards, politics and policies, and social disruption, along with the automation and technologies of the fourth Industrial Revolution (Industry 4.0), which range from AI and machine learning (ML) to robotics, advanced manufacturing techniques, the Internet of Things, and sensor technology.

Along with other OSH stakeholders, NIOSH hopes to understand the implications of future-of-work scenarios and translate effective interventions into practice for employers looking to safeguard the safety, health, and well-being of their workforce.

Opportunities, Threats of Technology

While certain technologies like sensors may help provide greater levels of safety, many “future of work” scenarios will demand greater employer attention to safety and health. NIOSH suggests employers may need to take a more integrated approach to workplace safety and health.

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