Arup report maze Towards a safe and healthy future of work Evolution or revolution?

Future risks and opportunities

Extreme heat, infectious diseases, environmental degradation and new technologies are shaping future risks and opportunities for workers. What new and emerging risks and opportunities do you need to consider that will impact the health, safety and wellbeing of workers?
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Social and environmental

The profile of health, safety and wellbeing risks and opportunities is changing. Many of these shifts are driven by social, environmental and economic macro-trends such as infectious disease, globalisation, climate change and environmental degradation.

For example, air pollution is now one of the world’s leading risk factors, with death rates especially high in low- and middle-income countries. These changes will amplify existing risks, such as overheating in outdoor work. But there are also future opportunities to create a safer and healthier world of work, improving the mental health of workers by building on the broader societal awareness of the issue.

India, China and Bangladesh lose 259, 722 and 32 billion hours annually due to the impacts of humid heat on labour.41 In Central and South America, rises in chronic diseases are linked to increasing temperature.42
What if......extreme global warming leads to significant increases in workers’ occupational risks and vulnerability?

Climate as a health and safety issue

With 2023 the warmest year on record,43 we are reminded that climate change will increasingly be recognised as a health, safety and human rights issue. Climate change’s impacts range from natural disasters to disruption of critical services and increased seasonal heat or cold. There is an enormous body of evidence to demonstrate the impacts of climate change on communities and workers.

Research published in 2021 in the journal Nature Climate Change suggested that 100,000 heat-related deaths per year were caused by climate change.44 Another study, published in the journal Environmental Research Letters, looked at data on humid heat. It suggested almost three quarters of the global working-age population are already living in locations where background climate conditions are associated with about a hundred hours of heat-associated lost work per person per year.45

Graphic icon climate change100,000 heat-related deaths per year are caused by climate change.

Climate adaptation will likely fall, in part, under the remit of the OSH profession. Workplaces will need to become resilient both to sudden shocks – such as extreme weather events – and to more gradual changes over time, such as hotter and drier summer weather and greater exposure to tropical diseases.

Adaptation will include changes to worker welfare facilities as well as championing legislation on working hours. Climate impacts will also hit unequally across the world, creating a huge demand for knowledge, mentoring and international collaboration in OSH.

The need for broader action on wellbeing

Personal wellbeing is driven by many factors including physical and mental health, relationships, personal finance, the economy, the natural environment, where we live and how we spend our time (including in the workplace).

Employment in healthy working environments and meaningful work can positively contribute to personal wellbeing, while harmful working environments can have significant negative impacts on personal wellbeing.46 To enhance wellbeing at work, organisations need to also consider factors such as working relationships, working conditions, purpose, culture and physical workplace.

This diversity of factors results in a wide range of preventive and structural changes that can be implemented to improve the wellbeing of workers. When organisational wellbeing is meaningfully addressed, and workers are happy, there is evidence that productivity is increased.47

Mental health is a key driver of personal and worker wellbeing, with its impact on individuals, organisations and society now receiving much greater public attention. Globally, mental health conditions are highly prevalent, with about one in eight people living with a mental health disorder.48

Workplace stress leads to physical or mental health problems, which can in turn impact the ability to carry out work effectively.49 Despite the significant number of individuals living with mental health issues globally, there are considerable gaps in terms of adequate access to care or effective treatment.50 Around half the world’s population lives in countries where there is just one psychiatrist to serve 200,000 or more people.51

Graphic icon showing ratio of psychiatrist to populationAround 50% of the world's population lives where there is just one psychiatrist to serve 200,000 or more people.

Industries are affected differently by mental health issues. UK construction workers are three times more likely to take their own lives than workers in other sectors.52 This can be attributed to several factors, including lone working, unsociable hours, work pressures and a male-dominated workforce or workplace culture.53

In the healthcare sector, the increased pressure on ‘front line’ workers during the COVID-19 pandemic has not relented, with continuing difficulties resulting in overwork, stress and worker exhaustion. This is impacting the welfare of workers in the sector and staff retention. In the USA, health employment is over 1% below pre-pandemic levels despite the rising demand for healthcare.

The increased focus on organisational wellbeing is changing OSH professionals’ responsibilities. There is greater focus on psychosocial risks - aspects of the design, management and social and organisational context of work, including stress, that could cause psychological or physical harm.54

There is also a broader understanding of the range of preventive actions and structural organisational changes that OSH professionals can support. This could include management capabilities, culture, resourcing, job design, flexible working, or the use of healthcare technology (such as wellbeing apps or health surveillance approaches to monitor potential issues and prevent progression to longer-term or larger-scale health problems).

Yet many employers focus on individual-level interventions that remediate symptoms rather than resolve chronic workplace stress, which causes employee burnout.55 56 There is also a lack of rigorous research on cause and effect, and hence which interventions really work.57

What if......psychological injuries and mental health are regulated in the same way as physical injuries?

Workers’ physical health

The steady global health progress of the past 70 years will not necessarily continue in the next 70 years, with recent studies highlighting the negative impact of three Cs on progress—COVID-19, climate change and conflict.58 There are also other factors that will impact global and therefore worker health, including ageing populations, antimicrobial resistance and obesity.

In 2019, an estimated 38.2 million children under the age of five years were overweight or obese, with overweight and obesity now on the rise in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in urban settings.59 Common health consequences of a raised Body Mass Index (BMI) include cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, musculoskeletal disorders and some cancers.

In 2022, one in six UK adults had a pressing need for medical examination or treatment, but was unable to get access, with almost half of these cases due to the length of waiting lists, according to data from YouGov and Eurostat. This was the highest figure out of 36 European countries and almost triple the EU average.60
Health check-ups in Japan: case study
To improve population health through early detection, health check-ups are available to almost all segments of the Japanese population throughout their lives. Based on health check-up results, an individual’s efforts to manage their own health condition through better lifestyles are promoted. These secondary prevention strategies are unique in the OECD.61

Access to timely healthcare treatment is also a common global issue, with delays creating issues of increasing chronic illness. If workers are not physically fit to perform their roles and absence levels rise, there is a significant burden on employers.

To improve public health there has been a rise of preventive models in clinical healthcare, focussing on lifestyle-based change and early intervention.62 Governments are also recognising the benefits of a preventive approach with New Zealand’s ‘wellbeing budget’, launched in 2019, encouraging and enforcing preventive models.

What if......there is another global pandemic more harmful to health than COVID-19?

Infectious diseases and future pandemics

Infectious diseases are on the rise globally due to increased international travel, population growth, environmental degradation and related issues such as sanitation.63 Global migration, transport and logistics patterns, especially growth in air travel, aid the dispersion of diseases.

Concern around infectious disease has an impact on workplace design (for example, to reduce contact points and increase hygiene) and working patterns such as remote and hybrid working.64 Employers may be more open to OSH provisions to prevent and manage large-scale threats to health following the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic, data indicate rising levels of long-term sickness and absence from the workplace. Figures from the USA indicate that the number of workers missing work due to illness in January 2022 had more than doubled from the previous year, from 3.7 million to 7.8 million.65

This includes the rise of ‘long COVID’, a condition relatively poorly understood but with long-term impact. One study by the Brookings Institution found that 1.1m people in the USA were out of work at any one time due to long COVID, not just through long-term absence but also due to decreased working hours relating to fatigue.66

The growing burden of disease associated with air pollution exposure

Air quality is a significant risk to public health in developed and emerging countries. An estimated seven million people die prematurely each year from diseases linked to air pollution according to the WHO, with around half from outdoor (ambient) air pollution and the rest from indoor air pollution.67 The WHO puts air pollution on a par with smoking and unhealthy eating. The impact is uneven globally, with low- and middle-income countries suffering the most, due to their reliance on fossil fuels for economic development.68

The intersectionality of air pollution with other health conditions is being uncovered. A study by the Committee on the Medical Effects of Air Pollutants found that cognitive decline in older people is more likely to be accelerated by exposure to ambient air pollutants.69 There is increasingly available technology to monitor both indoor and outdoor air quality and reduce emissions, presenting a new awareness of the health and quality of the spaces in which we work.

Graphic icon showing air pollutionSeven million people are estimated to die prematurely each year from diseases linked to air pollution.

Technology and digitisation

New technologies and increased digitalisation are transforming the workplace and impacting health, safety and wellbeing, bringing both opportunities and risks. For some workers, it may mean they no longer need to work in unsafe conditions or be exposed to potentially harmful environments.

For others it could mean the ability to perform tasks more safely and efficiently, sometimes beyond their traditional abilities. The proliferation of workplace technologies also means the generation of increasing amounts of data, which can be used to improve health, safety and wellbeing outcomes, for example through predictive analytics.

Whilst new technologies and digitalisation present many opportunities, they also will create new ethical, security and physical risks. OSH professionals will need to identify and apply new technology and digital tools to a health, safety and wellbeing context, driving rapid improvements and assessing effectiveness, while also managing these new risks.

Digital transformation in the workplace

Digital transformation, a broad term referring to the integration of digital technologies into all parts of an organisation, is reshaping work. Advances in technologies and their deployment in the workplace will create job opportunities. However, they may also cause unemployment in certain sectors, impacting regions with high proportions of workers in manual or administrative roles. Some predict that up to 81% of tasks completed by certain jobs are automatable.70

Graphic icon shown AI70% of individuals would gladly delegate tasks to AI to ease their workloads.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a significant and rapidly developing technology, with the potential to impact all industries and parts of life. AI is technology which can simulate human cognitive functions, such as logical reasoning.

It is an umbrella term encompassing fields such as Machine Learning (ML, a subfield of AI focused on computer systems that can learn and adapt independently of instructions using algorithms and statistical models), Generative AI (using ML techniques to produce media, such as text and images) and Natural Language Processing (NLP, using ML techniques to enable computers to understand human language). Workers have mixed reactions towards AI and its future application and management.

Microsoft’s 2023 Work Trend Index revealed that 70% of individuals would gladly delegate tasks to AI to ease their workloads.71 However, another survey found that more than 60% of the British public would feel more comfortable if the use of AI technologies was guided by appropriate laws and regulations.72

What if......the application of new technologies to improve worker protection creates other health, safety and wellbeing risks?

Safeguards will be key to building a responsible innovation landscape and ensure that the use of new technological developments, such as AI, do not come at the expense of worker rights and protections.

Digital transformation has huge potential health, safety and wellbeing benefits. For example, Connected Autonomous Vehicles (CAVs) have the potential to reduce human error, a factor in more than 80% of injury-causing accidents.73

However, it can also bring with it new or emerging risks, such as cybersecurity, as well as public scepticism. In a 2021 study surveying 125,911 people across 121 countries, 65% of people said they would not feel safe being driven in a car without a human driver.74

Some predict that up to 81% of tasks completed by certain jobs are automatable.

The impact of digital transformation on health, safety and wellbeing is varied across sectors. In customer-facing sectors, digitalisation such as digital ticketing changes the role of workers and their interaction with customers.

For workers this can affect wellbeing, as the increased efficiency and greater traffic places greater burdens on individual workers, while minimising face-to-face interaction with customers. In manufacturing, robotics and new industrial approaches utilising the Internet of Things have the potential to reduce hazards. For example, monitoring systems can automatically trigger accident prevention procedures, alerts, alarms and reporting.

The Automation Readiness Index puts East Asian countries including Japan, Singapore, and South Korea and European countries including Germany and France as some of the most technologically advanced in the world.75

History tells us that technological innovation can lead to major improvements to health, safety and wellbeing for society, as demonstrated by the invention of seatbelts, for example. OSH professionals therefore have an important role in effectively identifying, risk assessing, adapting and applying technological innovation from across different sectors in a health, safety and wellbeing context.

OSH professionals can be key advocates for safety in design and human-centric approaches to digital transformation, ensuring worker participation. The use of technology could also shift the focus for OSH professionals further towards safe systems of work and away from standards and procedures. However, whilst the application of new technologies can provide significant opportunities, it is unlikely to solve structural issues that impact on health, safety and particularly wellbeing, such as culture or workload.

The use of data to improve health, safety and wellbeing outcomes

Businesses, technology firms and OSH professionals will be required to identify and utilise increasing amounts of high quality data with the proliferation of technology in work. This information spans from live incident reporting through to live data on training completion, worker tenure and retention.

OSH professionals also have access to a significant volume of free-field textual data that currently require manual analysis, such as audit reports, investigations and inspections. Utilising technological advancements such as AI, ML and NLP, this data can be used in a variety of ways to improve health, safety and wellbeing outcomes.

Organisations will be able to process Big Data (large and complex data sets) and then perform new types of risk analysis and prediction. For example, they will be able to develop health indicators, implement preventive strategies through predictive analytics and generate actionable insights from behavioural data in order to maximise the efficiency of their organisation and employees.

OSH professionals will also have a key role in reducing data silos, in particular between operational data and health and safety data. OSH professionals will increasingly need data analysis skills and critical thinking to fulfil this role, requiring a broader view of recruitment, learning and assessment in the sector.

OSH Barometer, European Agency for Safety and Health at Work: case study

Pulling data from a range of sources dating back to 2010, the EU OSH Barometer is a data visualisation tool covering the most important OSH facts and figures in the EU, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland.

The tool aims to inform the public of key OSH indicators within the region, including charts such as national OSH strategies, work accident trends, and OSH culture and health awareness. Maintained by EU-OSHA, the tool is constantly updated with high-quality data in collaboration with EU institutions and member state contact points.

While data analytics create potential to improve worker health, safety and wellbeing, new sources of data and methods of data collection will generate increased risks associated with cybersecurity, privacy, ethical guidelines, consumer protection, sector-specific regulations and legal restrictions. A WEF report found that 39% of organisations were affected by a third-party cyber incident in the past two years.76 These new risks can lead to unease among workers, especially where organisations have unclear or insufficient guidance and support for managing this increase in data.

Graphic icon showing cyber incident39% of organisations were affected by a third-party cyber incident in the past two years.

OSH professionals will need to be responsive to and adapt rapidly to changing data risks with regular and constant learning, development, training and new knowledge. OSH professionals will increasingly deal with large volumes of personal data, requiring adaptive knowledge and skills to deal with changing legal and ethical guidance around safe handling of personal data. Those who do not follow legislation face the risk of prosecution, significant fines and reputational damage.

20 technologies impacting the world of work

We have identified 20 technologies that will have a significant impact on the future of work, but will also create new (or amplify existing) health, safety and wellbeing opportunities and risks.

The technologies are agnostic to any application and are organised into three categories. We describe each technology, their potential application, possible opportunities and risks for health, safety and wellbeing and their Technology Readiness Level (TRL). TRLs assess a technology’s maturity level, ranging from TRL 1 (‘basic principles observed and reported’) to TRL 9 (‘actual system proven through successful operations’).77 The TRL level does not reflect the market scale or ubiquity of the technology.

Manufacturing, hardware and applications

Air monitoring (TRL 9)

Air monitoring refers to the measurement of airborne contaminants in indoor and outdoor spaces. It involves testing the concentration of pollutants over a given time.

Common pollutants include ozone (O3), carbon dioxide (CO2), carbon monoxide (CO), nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and total volatile organic compound (TVOC). Poor air quality, one of the major factors in workplace ill health in the global population, will continue to increase as global warming intensifies events such as wildfires and smog.

  • Improved monitoring can help identify when workers are exposed to potentially dangerous levels of pollution at indoor and outdoor locations.
  • Monitoring can help protect sensitive equipment, preventing equipment failure.
  • Monitoring can be challenging in a non-enclosed environment.

Smart sensors (TRL 9)

Smart sensors use wireless connection and microprocessors to monitor, analyse and track information from the physical environment. Their popularity in a vast range of industries has increased significantly over the past few decades due to their ability to improve efficiency. For example, the advanced manufacturing industry is using them to link devices and sensors in the IoT in order to help streamline the value chain and inhibit any failures.

  • Smart monitoring systems can automatically trigger accident prevention procedures, alerts, alarms and reporting.78
  • OSH professionals need to ensure that smart sensors are performing functions that have been modified to fit the specific context in which they are used, rather than generic functions.79

Autonomous products (TRL 9)

Autonomous products can engage in specific tasks independent of human interaction. Products include autonomous smart home devices, vehicles and robots and their tasks may include vacuuming, mopping or delivering packages. Autonomous products can use algorithms, sensors and ML and are designed to be simple to use and operate. Compared to Cobots or other more complex machines, they perform single tasks and are relatively straightforward.

  • The automation of monotonous tasks allows workers to focus on more complex or specialised tasks.80
  • Automation of repetitive movements can reduce physical strain.
  • Imperfectly programmed robots introduce new OSH concerns around liability for accidents or collisions.81

Cobots (TRL 9)

Collaborative robots - or Cobots - are designed to interact with humans in a shared space. The degree of interaction of Cobots with people can vary; they can support with either simple or very complex tasks. Cobots will likely be integrated into various stages of industrial settings, including manufacturing, production and construction. Recent advances in AI and machine vision have facilitated the ability of Cobots to be aware of their surroundings and perform useful tasks alongside humans.

  • Augmentation technologies present an opportunity to eliminate the riskiest work by delegating these tasks to robots or reducing stress on workers’ bodies.
  • If Cobots and human augmentation technologies become more widely available and ubiquitous, new safety procedures will be needed rapidly as technological change accelerates.
  • Augmentation technologies can reduce the autonomy of workers, posing a threat to worker wellbeing and physical health.82

Drones (TRL 9)

A drone is a driver-less aerial vehicle which is used to perform a diverse range of tasks, from home deliveries to military operations to avalanche rescues. Drones can travel at different heights and distances, and their features can be tailored to the unique demands of varied industries. They have increasingly been used in the mainstream, as evidenced by Amazon’s launch of ultra-fast drone deliveries in some locations in 2023.83 Broadly, there are two degrees of autonomy for drones. The first is remotely piloted, whereby the drone’s movement is controlled by a person. The second is advanced autonomy, which relies on sensors and software to automatically determine how best to carry out tasks.

  • They can be used for inspections deemed dangerous or high-risk.84
  • Drones present new OSH risks, from privacy to physical safety.85

Additive and modular manufacturing (TRL 9)

Additive manufacturing – often referred to as 3D printing – refers to manufacturing a three-dimensional product layer by layer. Recently, 4D printing has become more popular because it enables additive manufacturing processes to react to changes in surrounding conditions, such as changes in temperature or moisture in the air over time. Modular manufacturing is an additive manufacturing technique which allows elements to be produced off-site and then later assembled, which can improve reduce lead times and enhance productivity. These technologies could reduce labour exposure on site by reducing the number of people needed in construction.

  • Additive manufacturing could reduce exposure to potentially hazardous manufacturing conditions for complex parts.86
  • 3D and 4D printing relies heavily on digital design files and software. Cyber-attack could lead to the manipulation of part design that is difficult to detect.

Jetpacks (TRL 8)

Jetpacks allow individuals to hover or fly for a limited amount of time through propulsion. Often, jetpacks are in the style of backpacks, which strap to the individual’s back, or hover boards which strap to the individual’s feet. Jetpacks have been explored for many decades, but emerging jetpack technology includes automation and more sophisticated controls for next-generation individual flight.

  • Jetpacks could be used for emergency crews to access difficult-to-reach locations quickly and safely, aiding the safety of remote or lone workers.87
  • Jetpacks have potential to eliminate otherwise risky jobs, such as abseiling from a helicopter.88
  • Jetpack technology is still emerging, so practical applications and their OSH implications are not well understood.
  • Jetpacks can be difficult to manoeuvre and could pose significant safety risks to users.

Soft robotics (TRL 3)

In contrast to traditional robots, which move in linear fashion and are made of hard materials, soft robotics mimic locomotion mechanisms of soft bodies existing in nature to achieve complex motion. Soft robotics are often constructed of pliable or easily deformable materials, such as fluids and elastomers, which are materials capable of returning to their original shape after being deformed.

  • Mimicking muscular function is a common application of soft robotics, which can be used to develop comfortable prosthetics that can aid disabled workers in performing certain functions.
  • In environments with high robot and human interaction, soft robotics can present fewer physical risks.
  • Soft robotics are often less precise and could place workers at risk if they cannot perform a task accurately.89

Experiences and interfaces

Virtual Reality (TRL 9)

Virtual Reality (VR) is a rapidly growing market, with the global market size predicted to increase over 80% between 2022 and 2025, from $12 billion to $22 billion.90 VR creates a computer-generated simulation of a 3D experience, which puts users at the centre. Often, this simulation is accessed through physical hardware – such as a helmet – and sensors which track movement.

An example of VR is the Metaverse, which provides an immersive, shared experience of the world which allows people to work, play and socialise. Some deem it the future of the internet as a key place to connect with others socially and economically, but the Metaverse has yet to gain traction in mainstream culture.

  • Reduces in-person physical risks associated with worker tasks.
  • VR/AR training has been shown to be more effective for learning than traditional classroom training in some instances.91
  • VR could pose ergonomic risks, such as headaches and neck and back pain.
  • There are psychosocial risks associated with lack of social interaction.92

Digital twins (TRL 9)

Digital twins are virtual representations of the real world. Digital twins can be used to visualise objects, services, products or systems at different stages of their lifecycle. They are useful for many industries and can support a range of purposes, including testing, monitoring and maintenance of assets. Digital twins, as opposed to simulations, typically study several processes rather than one. Furthermore, digital twins can be used in real-time alongside simulations, logical reasoning and ML to help to make informed decisions in the real world.

  • Digital twins can help workers gain a better understanding of a complicated site, with real-time updates to any spatial changes, and improve navigation.
  • Human-focussed digital twins, an emerging application that represents human workers as well as other physical assets, could be used to support and guide workers in future environments, including recording the context of failures or accidents.93
  • The level of data collection required for human-focused digital twins could present serious legal or ethical challenges.
  • Access to a digital twin allows insights and control of the system or asset it replicates. A bad actor could influence decision-making with physical impacts that could cause catastrophic harm.

Wearables (TRL 9)

Wearables are hands-free technologies which can monitor and analyse information. Wearables can collect information from the human body directly, as with heart rate monitors, or can be devices for monitoring or interacting with the surrounding world, as with body-worn cameras or access control chips.

They can either be worn as accessories, implanted into skin, inserted into clothing or even tattooed onto the skin. They typically use a mixture of biosensors, GPS, RFID, and other networking and communications technologies to track location and provide real-time data. They have a wide range of uses, from health to work monitoring. As such, they could be used to monitor heart rate during exercise, or investigate employee behaviour and performance by tracking computer use during working hours.

  • They can help reduce physical risks, such as over-exertion or inappropriate reaching or lifting by tracking body movements.
  • Large-scale tracking may allow automation of OSH professionals' tasks (such as monitoring of fatigue and health).
  • Wearables can transform accident investigations by providing access to point-of-view information or allowing workers to directly capture conditions.94
  • Data from wearables can be used to support accident investigations.
  • Constantly monitoring productivity can introduce mental stress.95
  • There may be an increase in stress, anxiety, overworking or undesired behaviours due to a lack of agency.
  • The quantity and variety of data produced is a challenge to sense-making; data used for performance indicators need to result in tangible health and safety outcomes.96
  • Wearables may pose a threat to worker privacy.
  • They could prove unpopular with employees. A 2022 Morning Consult survey of 750 tech workers showed that half would rather quit than have their employer monitor them during the workday.97
  • The holding of sensitive data by employers may pose ethical challenges.
What if......technologies inform an employer of a health condition before the worker?

Exoskeletons (TRL 9)

Exoskeletons – sometimes referred to as wearable robotics, powered clothing or exosuits – are mechanical devices which can be worn by people for certain applications. Exoskeletons can be made from different materials, such as elastic, metal and carbon. They can be used to augment, reinforce or restore human body functionality, facilitating new movements or load bearing.

  • Exoskeletons can reduce loading on muscles and joints, reducing the risk of stress injuries.
  • Workers experiencing a short-term or long-term disability can use exoskeletons to improve mobility and enable them to safely perform different movements.98
  • There are lingering questions regarding the effectiveness and/or scalability of exoskeleton technologies.
  • Poorly designed exoskeletons can redistribute stress to other regions of the body, causing the potential for new kinds of injuries.99
  • Classification of exoskeletons as personal protective equipment (PPE) or as technical support devices can be difficult due to lack of consensus on their benefits.
  • Research suggests front-end workers dislike them because they feel restricted in performing their jobs properly and comfortably.100

Augmented Reality (TRL 9)

Augmented reality (AR) occurs when sensory information is superimposed onto an individual’s real-world experience. This is done through both low-end technologies, such as mobile applications, and high-end technologies, such as headsets. It is different to Virtual Reality (VR) in that it adds to the current environment, as opposed to creating a new, cyber environment. AR may include the addition of visual, auditory and somatosensory information, with an example being the use of visual cues to support machine maintenance in industrial settings, thereby reducing human error.

  • AR technology can enable workers to practise operations, procedures and tasks in a controlled and safe environment, reducing the risk of human error at work.
  • AR can help workers and safety inspectors visualise complicated exit plans and difficult-to-navigate facilities.
  • AR can help provide additional detail to those on-site, assisting in ensuring high-quality inspections and investigations into working practices.101
  • Workers using AR technologies may lose real-world awareness and a shared consensus of reality, leading to accidents such as experiencing a hazard with different views or tripping over obstacles.102
  • Spending too much time in augmented reality could impact social awareness and mental health.

Human implant technology (TRL 9)

Human implants are electronic devices that typically contain a unique ID number and are implanted into the human body. The implant is then linked to personal information, from medical history to social media profiles, stored in an external database. The most common human implant is a microchip inserted under the skin via an injection.

  • Medical information could be easily accessible by first responders if an injured person is incapacitated and unable to share important medical details.103
  • Implanted technology takes agency away from workers to easily remove or switch off the chips.
  • Human implants could be used to track employees without consent or awareness, including activities and locations outside of work. This is a privacy violation and could be used to discriminate against employees.
  • Implants could pressure workers to modify their typical behaviour, leading to increased stress and anxiety.104

Brain-computer interfaces (TRL 7)

A brain-computer interface (BCI) facilitates the communication of a brain and another device, such as a robotic leg or a computer. BCIs work by tracking brain signals from the cortex through a device either on top of the scalp (non-invasive) or planted in the brain (invasive).

Use cases are currently largely focused on medical purposes, for example helping paralysed people control assistive devices using their thoughts. However, there is a broad range of potential applications for non-medical, non-invasive BCIs for civilians across sectors such as gaming, education, world of work, sport and wellness, including enhancing an individual’s sensory-motor ability or cognitive behaviour.

  • Fatigue detection could be improved.
  • BCIs could improve communication between humans and robots in occupational environments where they work collaboratively.
  • Workers may be exposed to potential physical and psychosocial threats, from malicious data collection and cyber-attacks, to remote cognitive influence.105

Advanced computing, data and AI

Internet of Things (TRL 9)

The Internet of Things (IoT) is a network of objects (i.e. ‘things’) which are connected by sensors and other technologies, and which exchange data with other ‘things’ via the internet. This usually occurs via cloud-based centralised servers but can also process data in a decentralised way. The IoT allows real-time data from the physical world to be analysed and fed back into the network.

Advances in technology and cloud computing, and the increased uptake of mobile devices, means that the IoT is widely used across varied industries. This includes healthcare, education, construction and technical support. The user of IoT spans from the individual to companies. As such, it can used in the management of venues to monitor people and identify crowded areas, enhancing safety. Equally, it can provide information – such as deliveries or messaging – to individuals through wearable devices or smartphones.

  • New digital tools and the growth of the IoT enable both fully and partially remote auditing, inspection and maintenance. This can dramatically reduce safety risk for individual workers, allowing high-risk activities to be carried out at a distance.
  • Enable the delivery of new remote service offerings across healthcare and learning.
  • IoT systems are reliant on the quality, accuracy and success of remote software and information-gathering devices, which are susceptible to failure, introducing new risks to industrial processes.
  • Remote services change the roles and responsibilities of workers, leading to greater workloads and technology-related OSH concerns, such as eye strain.106
  • Growth in the number of interconnected IoT devices leads to higher vulnerability from cyber-attacks, data breaches and mistrust.107 This could lead to catastrophic harm.

Next-generation voice assistants (TRL 9)

Next-generation voice assistants can perform tasks or provide services to their users. They use AI technology to interpret information from humans and react by answering questions or executing tasks. They often do this through connecting with other technologies. Next-generation voice assistants are an evolution of simpler voice-controlled machines as they are able to respond to complex questions or commands with a level of intuition or human reasoning.

  • Voice assistants can enable workers to get immediate assistance without needing to free up their hands, enabling them to sound an alarm or ask a question from any position.
  • Digital assistants can offer support to caregivers, healthcare providers and other service providers and reduce the burden of difficult professions.108
  • Voice assistants can overcome poor written communication skills.
  • Voice recordings can be used to commit fraud, identity theft and other crimes against individuals.
  • Voice assistants can create a pressure for workers to fit more work into the same amount of time, which can lead to burnout or undue stress.109
  • ‘Always on’ microphones can create a privacy risk when workers believe they are speaking confidentially.
RiskTalk: case study
Risktalk is a voice technology-powered tool which enables conversations about risk assessments, safety observations and hazard and incident reporting. RiskTalk aims to improve record keeping of OSH conversations and live, remote oversight and sign-off ability.110

Artificial Intelligence (TRL 9)

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is a technology which can simulate human cognitive functions, such as logical reasoning. It has the potential to impact all industries and parts of life. The AI industry is large and constantly growing, with the global market predicted to increase from $406 billion in 2022 to $554 billion in 2024.111 ML is a subfield of AI which has increased in popularity. ML refers to the use of algorithms and computer models to learn from data, identify patterns and make predictions accordingly without being specifically programmed to do so.

  • Large-scale collection and analysis of Big Data could automate some of OSH professionals’ responsibilities, providing more time for other activities that require competencies beyond AI’s capabilities, such as critical thinking.
  • Some jobs may change or be replaced by artificial intelligence, and new highly skilled jobs operating or interacting with AI and automation technology will emerge.
  • Automation is an opportunity to reduce high-risk roles, particularly in industry and site-based work (such as remote inspection).
  • Workers will need additional learning to understand how they can work with and alongside automation.
  • ML can enable computers to identify patterns and make decisions without being explicitly programmed to do so, making it possible for these algorithms to learn OSH risks independently over time.
  • NLP can efficiently generate insight from free-field textual data that currently requires manual analysis.
  • Emerging applications of AI can perpetuate bias and discrimination. Potential bias in AI algorithms can exacerbate issues of discrimination.112
  • Automated or AI-based approaches to safety are relatively untrialled and may not improve safety.
  • Increased tracking and monitoring through AI can lead to micromanagement, increasing worker stress and anxiety.113

Computer vision (TRL 9)

Computer vision refers to the use of AI to interpret visual information. Through AI algorithms and programming, computers can recognise visual objects, identify movements and store any changes. When this vision is used in manufacturing, it is often referred to as ‘machine vision’. Typically, this will help with quality assurance and testing.

  • Computer vision can quickly detect rogue objects, anomalies or dangerous situations simultaneously across many input feeds, enabling quick accident prevention beyond human capability.114
  • Computer vision algorithms must be accurately trained, and reliance on them can lead to complacency and over-confidence.115
Protext AI: case study
The company’s privacy-preserving software plugs into existing CCTV infrastructure to use its computer vision technologies to capture unsafe events autonomously in settings such as warehouses, manufacturing facilities and ports. Working with a large UK retailer, Protex AI has been able to decrease incidents in the workplace by 80%.116

Quantum computing (TRL 4)

Quantum computing leverages the principles of quantum theory to solve problems that are too complex for classical computing. This multidisciplinary field is rapidly emerging, with researchers, companies and governments aiming to reach a quantum advantage through a combination of computer science, physics and mathematics. Quantum advantage has the potential for a massive leap forward in computing capability, solving problems in specific use cases that could not be reasonably simulated by a classical computer.

  • Quantum safety is an emerging area of OSH that leverages this technology to understand OSH in a complex modern world using multidimensional models and complex analysis.117
  • Quantum computing has a broad range of potential applications, such as improving indoor environmental quality assessment.118
  • If quantum computing is increasingly used for complex decision making, those processes could become more opaque.
  • Quantum computing could soon be capable of breaking encryption schemes that are in widespread use across web-based platforms.