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

The evolving OSH profession

Expanding definitions of the OSH profession, agendas towards deregulation, the adoption of principle-based standards and new skills requirements are transforming the OSH profession. What does the evolving OSH profession mean for you?
In a changing world of work the OSH profession is evolving and adapting for the continued prevention of harm and protection of workers. There are fundamental shifts occurring that are challenging traditional definitions of what the profession is, does and stands for. Professionals will require new skills as this shift occurs.

At the same time, countries without OSH regulations or standards - and governments with de-regulatory agendas or who are seeking to reduce health and safety standards - are having an impact on OSH professionals' ability to influence organisational principles and deliver wider OSH benefits.

Furthermore, the rising adoption of international or organisational principles-based OSH standards will create greater consistency between countries and could alter the focus of influence away from a national government level. Beyond shifts in policy and standards, the COVID-19 pandemic, ongoing geopolitical instability and globalisation have made businesses more aware of the need for resilience, to anticipate rapid change, and adapt quickly to evolving circumstances to ensure worker health, safety and wellbeing.

Complex systems and the expanding definitions of health and safety

Responses to complex issues, such as climate change, will require understanding of the wider system that could redraw the definition, roles, skills and responsibilities of the OSH profession. The OSH sector has already expanded from its origins in industry and high-hazard sectors. It has aligned with previously disparate technical professions to include additional roles such as sustainability and resilience.

A key point of intersection is the growing environmental industry. Environmental job postings are rising 8% annually, and there are high rates of people from other careers transitioning into the industry, creating a large new sustainability workforce.119 The intersection is shown by OSH regulations in the EU changing to include consideration of the environment (e.g., OSH+E accreditation in Germany).

Graphic icon for environmental jobEnvironmental job postings are rising 8% annually.

Another key point of intersection is clinical health. More remote working, a greater appreciation of health and wellbeing at work, deficiencies in public healthcare systems and possible future pandemics point towards greater blurring of lines between clinical and occupational health in the future.

The COVID-19 pandemic brought public and clinical health and their management directly into the workplace. This created new streams of work (such as organisation of in-workplace testing and management of workplace capacity), and new relationships between regulators, health practitioners and the workplace. In the UK, Public Health England began policing the pandemic response in the workplace, representing a departure from previous involvement, largely in cases of injury.

Professionals were not necessarily trained to respond to these developments and did not have medical training. However, they may still be best placed to respond to future pandemics and other, similar, large-scale health threats.

What if......there is no dividing line between occupational and clinical health?

As we look to the future, we expect this redrawing of OSH to continue as systems and resilience thinking become more important. At the same time linkages and outcomes between health, wellbeing and safety strengthen.

Eventually OSH will become more synonymous with operational excellence and business efficiency. OSH professionals could have a central role in bringing fields together such as security, sustainability and resilience through integrated safety management approaches. The evolution of the profession could create new skills, roles and sector identity.

Influencing the performance and resilience of business

In the future we may see OSH professionals having less focus on compliance (i.e., the adherence to rules and standards) and more on enabling and delivering value (i.e., efficiency, productivity and equity). Through championing new approaches and integrating and raising their profile within businesses, OSH professionals can influence the performance of businesses at the highest level.

New approaches to safety management will include taking a more proactive approach. A ‘Safety-II’ perspective is an evolutionary development of conventional safety thinking, referred to as ‘Safety I’. In simple terms, ‘Safety-II’ moves from ensuring that ‘as few things as possible go wrong’ to ensuring that ‘as many things as possible go right’.

OSH professionals can also utilise other aligned techniques such as appreciative enquiry. This focuses on what is working (rather than what isn’t working). This approach engages workers in appreciative conversations to share learning and collaborate to enhance organisational performance.

Lastly, organisations may need to shift to a scenario-based approach to anticipate and prepare for complex hazards from climate change to pandemics and technological advancements. Scenarios can help to explore and understand the organisational and systemic context that leads to accidents, disease and ill health.

Organisations and OSH professionals will need to design spaces, operations and systems for normal scenarios, pandemic scenarios, climate crisis scenarios, supply chain resilience scenarios and even multi-hazard scenarios.

What if......deregulation leads to a reduction in OSH standards and makes it more difficult for OSH professionals to influence discussions?

Changing perspectives on regulation and standards

Globally, OSH standards and incident rates vary enormously. Countries with few OSH-related laws or enforcement, and a high proportion of high-hazard industries, present high levels of risk to workers.

In contrast, developed countries are experiencing decreasing levels of risk in high-tech industry and increasing regulation for psychosocial risk management. For example, changes in 2023 to the Australian Work Health and Safety Regulations give more specific details on how to meet duties and protect workers from psychosocial hazards and risks.

Aside from the regulation of psychosocial risk, some developed countries are minimising or removing regulation and liberalising restrictions on industry. This can be seen, for example, across the Deregulation Agenda of the Australian government,120 delegation of safety responsibility from the regulator to private companies in the United States,121 and deregulation in the United Kingdom following the withdrawal from the EU.

The loss of regulation as a driving/limiting force may decrease overall activity and oversight of OSH in business, giving professionals less leverage to influence. We may also see the emergence of opt-in OSH best-practice guidance (national and international) driven by organisations.

As we look to the future, rapid changes driven by technology, population and climate shifts may outstrip the adaptive capacity of prescriptive standards. Internationally consistent, principle-based OSH standards will create greater consistency between countries and regions. This is something already being demonstrated regarding specific hazards such as the use of lithium batteries.

The push from the market and consumer, as well as employee expectations, could create organisation-led voluntary international standards that transcend state boundaries. Agreement of such standards will require international collaboration of OSH professionals and best practice knowledge-sharing across borders.

There will also likely be greater harmonising of standards across industry so they can be delivered in a more convenient and accessible way for workers, as well as help manage worker shortages. An example are the 25 life-saving rules standardised by the International Association of Oil and Gas Producers to be implementable industry-wide.

Misinformation and misconceptions of OSH

Our digital lifestyles have changed how we share and access information and news. This has led to conflicting information, and the rise in ‘fake news’, misleading content and myths. While the public recognition of ‘fake news’ is increasing, new technologies could exacerbate the issue.

Academics, cybersecurity researchers and AI experts warn that advanced language processing technology, such as ChatGPT, could be used by bad actors to sow dissent and spread propaganda on social media.122 These technologies make it much less labour-intensive to scale-up operations and spread misinformation.

Misinformation could impact the ability of OSH professionals to identify, access and use credible sources of information and research when developing and implementing assessments, processes and communications in the workplace.

It could also result in misconceptions about OSH and the ability to preserve the integrity of good OSH information. An example is the confusion around ‘COVID-safe’ behaviour in the workplace. OSH professionals will need to manage misconceptions and potential risk-taking behaviour, and greater training requirements for workers may be needed to identify and overcome misinformation.

A greater focus on digital and soft skills

The labour market is becoming increasingly digital and automated. In the future, skills requirements will focus less on specific competencies and expertise, and more on flexibility, adaptation and critical thinking, to add value beyond what can be achieved through AI automation.

Literacy in data, cybersecurity and digital systems will be key,123 as will soft skills in communication, people management and application of knowledge.124 For OSH professionals, the capability to develop, pilot and deploy emerging technology to improve health, safety and wellbeing outcomes will also be hugely critical.

This will require human-centric approaches, safety by design, worker participation and risk assessment. Furthermore, professionals will need the skills to navigate the complex ethical considerations of new technologies.

Digital skills are increasing in demand in the Asia–Pacific (APAC) region, with 75% of employers in four countries reporting a rise in demand for new hires with digital skills over the last five years.125

An increased need for learning, re-learning and reskilling

In parts of the world where the workforce is ageing and careers are becoming longer, there is an increased need for learning, re-learning and reskilling across the lifespan of a worker.126 In the OSH profession specifically, lifelong learning can help to manage new and emerging risks to improve OSH outcomes.

There will also be a greater range of ages in the workforce, and it may be challenging to develop OSH learning methods relevant to both young and older staff. In a 2019 survey, 84% of Americans said learning will become more self-service the older you get and 59% said YouTube will become the primary learning tool.127

Graphic icon to show computer as a learning tool59% of Americans believe YouTube will become the primary learning tool.

New learning formats and approaches

Learners will increasingly expect on-demand and personalised learning that can be conducted outside traditional learning and development patterns, and that fit around more flexible working. Access to numerous digital platforms such as e-learning and Moodle-style courses is supporting these changes, reinventing what learning pathways look like. From 2011 to 2021, the number of learners reached by massive open online courses (MOOCs) increased from 300,000 to 220 million.128

Graphic icon showing online courseFrom 2011 to 2021, the number of learners reached by massive open online courses increased from 300,000 to 220 million.

Looking further ahead, a focus on collaborative, immersive, gamified and adaptable content is emerging. This includes both face-to-face and virtual collaboration that is highly tailored to individual needs and learning styles, coaching and on-the-job training. OSH professionals will need to adapt to the expectations of workers to ensure effective learning and the health, safety and wellbeing of the workforce. However, new learning methods may be relatively untrialled regarding effectiveness, particularly over the long term.

The education and assessment landscape

The education landscape is changing, with a greater range of education pathways available. This includes a greater focus on vocational education and training, alongside traditional academic, subject-based training. This is seen in Europe, with the priorities set out in the European Year of Skills 2023.

This shift may result in increasing numbers of people following non-traditional routes into the OSH sector, a requirement for employers to invest in their own development and learning (for example through apprenticeships) and the need for a highly inclusive, open and accessible culture.

With regard to assessment, there is a shift away from test-based evaluation towards on-the-job or alternate assessment, incentivised by emerging technology and AI. A move to digital assessments also means that effective assessment will face future challenges, as software tools to produce (or cheat with) assignments become more sophisticated.

For example, AI software like ChatGPT can generate human language in real time, evaluated as comparable to a third-year medical student on medical licensing exams.129 OSH professionals will need to adapt to changing approaches to assessment to ensure the competence of the workforce in relation to health, safety and wellbeing.

ChatGPT, Open AI: case study

ChatGPT is a language model developed by OpenAI, trained on a large amount of text data to interact in a conversational way. It has the ability to generate human-like text, answer questions and complete various language-based tasks.

According to OpenAI, the dialogue format makes it possible for ChatGPT to answer follow-up questions, admit its mistakes, challenge incorrect premises and reject inappropriate requests. ChatGPT is proving popular and beneficial, with a 2023 survey of American business leaders finding that just under 50% of companies using ChatGPT had saved over $50,000.130

The implication of ChatGPT and other language models for assessment is currently unknown. For example, there could be a greater use of pen and paper exams or it could be incorporated into student assessments.