Will the 4th industrial revolution be good or bad for our health?

13 March 2018

The manufacturing industry is going through a period of significant change with automation, nanotechnology and changing work patterns all playing a part. At The Health & Safety Event, the British Safety Council will host an educational session centred around its new thought leadership paper, which features expert opinion on a number of the issues affecting the manufacturing sector now and in the future. Here, it provides a sneak preview of some of the key themes

At the recent XXI World Congress on Safety and Health in Singapore, Secretary General of the International Social Security Association (ISSA), Hans-Horst Konkolewsky, asked a large audience of international safety practitioners whether the 4th industrial revolution will be good or bad for worker’s health and safety. Overwhelmingly the answer that came back was that yes, ultimately the changing world of work will be good for our health and wellbeing. However, there will be many challenges to navigate – and risks to understand and control – before these revolutionary changes have been completed. 

What are the nature of these changes?

The British Safety Council has commissioned RobertsonCooper to produce a literature review, ‘Future changes to the world of work and the impact on employee health, safety and wellbeing,’ into the state of research about the changing world of work and their associated risks. The review tells us that people are living – and working – for longer; that many tasks are being automated; modern communication technologies are dissolving the work/home divide; new materials like nanotechnology (including tiny air-born waste products that can damage our health) and new techniques can present new risks; and an increasing use of more ‘flexible’ employee contracts. 

With these deep and fundamental changes to work, the risks associated with work are also changing. The spectre of automation is of course at the heart of many of these discussions. Research by IPPR says that 10 million jobs are at risk from automation in the UK. When those health and safety practitioners were asked the question about the future risks of work, the health advantages of automating certain hazardous processes (for example the increasing use of automated riveting or 3D printing) – and by implication the removal of people – was uppermost in their minds. There are also health benefits to these modern, flexible ways of working where people are adding specific value to automated processes. 

Intelligent machines to become ‘colleagues'

However, automation may increase inequality – at least in the next 20 years – and there will be many less skilled workers who will not benefit from such changes. Besides, a simple calculation of increasing automation may not fully reflect what will happen as we are already seeing counter-trends of people being re-introduced into the workplace with recognition of the benefits of human labour. It is far more likely that people and intelligent machines will increasingly become ‘colleagues’ in the future.

A colleague who can work without breaks, who is always ‘on,’ who isn’t going to share much ‘social’ information, is a very different colleague; a relationship that could easily create stress and undermine wellbeing. We also know that people at work derive important health benefits from the social nature of work and this will be an issue to address in the future. Evidence also tells us that the health benefits of ‘good’ work, whether we define this in terms of good employment practices, reward and recognition or fulfilling jobs, can be either enhanced or undermined by disruptive technologies.

In its 60-year history, the British Safety Council has always made sure it has the most up to date information on the risks that people experience at, or bring to, work. To argue for change, evidence must be at the heart of everything we do and this report by Professor Cary Cooper’s team gives us a roadmap to plot a series of discussions, seminars, events and campaigns. Seminars hosted by the British Safety Council at WBE’s Health and Safety Event (NEC, 10-12 April) will be one opportunity to steer us towards a fitter, healthier and happier future.

Find out more by attending the 'Challenges in Modern Manufacturing Panel Discussion', 11:30 - 12:15, Conference Theatre, The Health & Safety Event, NEC, Birmingham.