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Practitioner viewpoint - September 2018

10 September 2018

Technology had changed the nature of work and is often the cause of many problems including isolation and physical wellbeing, but it can also provide some of the solutions, says Louise Ward.

TECHNOLOGY IS fundamentally changing the nature of work in the UK. Forty five years ago, when the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 was being developed, the majority of people were employed in industrial operations. Workplaces tended to be fixed locations, and staff tended to live in communities within a short travelling distance of the workplace. Working days were a fixed length, with standard start and finish times, either 9-5 or sometimes on shifts. Offices were paper based, and staff rarely took work home with them.

Now the picture is very different. The majority of people now are now employed in knowledge and service-based businesses. Workplaces are often virtual, with staff using technology to log in from anywhere with an internet connection, be that home, a hub location, or even a coffee shop, train or car. Working schedules are flexible and there are few boundaries between life and work, with cloud based electronic file storage replacing paper records.

This new approach to work has also changed the social network that used to be associated with the workplace. Relationships are different when interaction is purely virtual, and an increasing number of people could actually be considered to be remote, or lone, workers.

Remote working

So how can employers fulfil their health and safety duties for a remotely-based virtual workforce operating from a whole series of environments over which they have no control? And how can they promote and support the wellbeing of workforce that they rarely have contact with? Employment relationships are changing too with the rise of the gig economy, so the concept of ‘employer’ and ‘employee’ is increasingly irrelevant to many workers.

This is a very real and contemporary challenge for many UK businesses, and they are looking to the health and safety profession for advice and solutions. In terms of risk management, the answer may lie in upskilling the working population, and empowering them to take control of the risks present in their local working environment, by giving them the knowledge and skills to identify, evaluate and mitigate risks themselves. This could be supported with virtual guidance, digital learning and access to specialist advice and support via video calling and augmented reality.

Health and safety is not currently covered in the curriculum for compulsory education in the UK. Vocational learning and training does tend to cover this important topic, but if we are to ensure the health and safety of the working population in the economy of the future, it really is essential to provide young people with high quality skills based learning that will equip them to manage risk effectively. There is an urgent need for the government to take action here.

Wellbeing will require a different approach. Human beings are essentially a social species, and for the working population, a significant part of our social and support network has traditionally been based around the workplace. Remote and lone workers risk becoming isolated which can adversely impact their mental wellbeing.

Technology may provide part of the solution. Social networking is increasingly prevalent in modern life, and workplace based social networks such as Yammer, WhatsApp and LinkedIn are also growing in popularity. These offer opportunities for one-one communication, as well as virtual conferencing options which allow communication to and within large dispersed groups of workers.

Physical wellbeing

Physical wellbeing will be an issue too, and we will need to ensure that workers are encouraged to maintain a healthy and active lifestyle, when they no longer have to leave home in order to go to work.

There is no doubt that the workplace of the future will be vastly different from the ones that we know today, and if we are to ensure the health, safety and wellbeing of future working populations then we need to really challenge our thinking and begin building the skills, systems and support networks that will support and enable a highly dispersed and informal approach to work.

There will be many challenges to overcome, but this new virtual approach will open up the world of work to a whole range of people who have been unable to access traditional jobs based in a physical workplace, and help to support equality of opportunity for an increasingly diverse population of workers.

As health and safety professionals we have a key role to play in supporting businesses as they start prepare to be part of the economy of the future, so I recommend that you take every opportunity you can to build your own skills and experience in this new area.

Louise Ward is the health, safety and environment director at Siemens. For more information visit, www.siemens.com/mobility