Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, technology has changed the way we work. The digital revolution of the last several decades has helped accelerate that change. More workers than ever are transacting in bits and bytes. To be sure, computing has led to incredible advancements in science, industry, and society. As with all advances, however, it has uncovered both positive and negative attributes for worker health and safety.
One obvious effect on health and safety is the transition to sedentary work. Because more workers are sitting at desks for long periods of time instead of moving, they are experiencing higher rates of obesity and metabolic diseases like diabetes. Additionally, musculoskeletal issues such as carpal tunnel are likely with bad computer posture and repetitive movement. No one yet knows the vision effects of staring at a screen for 8 hours a day. Additionally, some studies have found increased rates of presenteeism (non-productivity due to chronic medical and emotional conditions) in office settings.
Other industries have different safety concerns. No product typifies our age more succinctly than the semiconductor. Due to rapid advances in the industry, the manufacturing process can change completely every few years. Hazard assessments can be rendered obsolete and workers can face new dangers from toxic materials, radiation, or unfamiliar machinery.
Robotics too, has vastly changed the safety landscape in manufacturing. Assembly lines are faster and far more efficient than they were in the Henry Ford era. Yet, in 2013, a worker at a Volkswagen plant was killed by a robot. We are far from the future portended in the “Terminator” films, but as robots become more prevalent, more workers will be in their proximity. Safeguards need to be enacted to fulfill Asimov’s first law of robotics—to prevent injury to human beings.
Emerging technologies—including nanotechnology, genetic engineering, and individualized medicine—have similar potential to revolutionize science and industry. At the same time, there may be unintended risks to human health and the environment that accompany their development and use. Regulatory bodies are crucial to evaluate and mitigate these risks as they arise.
More positively, technology has already helped improve health and safety for workers. Wearable technologies allow for better industrial hygiene, vital signs monitoring, and better emergency response. Portable smart devices allow workers to access “moment of need” training, stay in contact with other crew members, and record observations or incidents in a safety management system. Consistent systems have allowed organizations to standardize safety practices across borders, independent of language or cultural variation. Better environmental controls, smarter machines, and higher quality personal protective equipment have improved safety for workers throughout a range of industries.
Across all industries, a consistent safety management system can help organizations standardize safety practices across borders. In a recent UL survey on safety among multinational corporations, 95% of respondents across a range of industries agreed that a globally consistent safety message is important. It is human nature to both fear and embrace change. As we continue to explore the brave, new digital world, it is incumbent on employers and regulators alike to weigh the risks and the benefits, and make the best use of technology for the business and for its people.