The potential benefits of new technologies for workplace health and safety are being vitiated by a profit-focused approach.
There’s little doubt the adoption and integration of digital technologies in the workplace have, in principle, great potential to make humankind safer. If we look at past waves of technological advance, we can see how these have ameliorated health and safety and working conditions. There is also growing evidence of the benefits of intelligence-led transformations in the world of work—when ethically implemented.
Robots are being deployed in environments dangerous for workers and technological developments have put an end to certain dangerous and demeaning jobs. Automated systems and the ‘internet of things’ can improve workplace safety with better prevention mechanisms, bringing reduced injuries, as well as increased capacity for human creativity. Robotics and artificial intelligence can alleviate repetitive and stressful tasks which cause musculoskeletal disorders or mental ill health.
In this exciting context of work, employers are drastically accelerating corporate strategies prioritising workplace productivity and business performance and how, in that context, these systems will operate in the future. At the same time, there is increasing demand from the public and civil society for better understanding of how the digitalisation of workplaces will affect workers’ conditions and health and safety.
Many of these fast-moving and highly competitive firms preach the ‘our people are our most important asset’ narrative. Yet when tech companies have addressed the transformative impact of technology in the workplace, ‘the people’ have not seemed to be at the centre of their strategic agenda. Profit-making has remained the priority, leaving workers behind. This needs to stop.
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Under these circumstances, workplace safety is sacrificed to a production-first mindset and the over-performance of employees. Cutting-edge businesses have been found to keep occupational injuries off the records and to misreport practices, making their due diligence look better than it should. During the pandemic, tech companies have faced criticism for keeping their workplaces fully operative while failing in their duty of care to protect their staff from the risks of contagion.
The actual picture is thus far different from the one initially painted. Recent research suggested that physical workplace injury should fall as a result of more pervasive automation. Platform workers were ‘sold’ an illusion of flexibility, freedom and independence. The adoption of AI should have improved the collection and analysis of information needed to assess and manage workplace safety and health hazards and ameliorated routines causing worker fatigue or psychological stress. Latest developments in people analytics are capable of detecting patterns across workers’ data, which could help monitor employees’ health and wellbeing. But the benefits of investment in these technologies for the improvement of working conditions are yet to be evidenced.
Investigations of the real effects of rapid digital disruption in the workplace are holding companies accountable for the negative impacts of technology developments:
- A leaked Amazon memo revealed plans to hire intelligence analysts to track attempts to organise its workforce. The firm has heavily invested in the automation and robotisation of its warehouses, to the detriment of workers’ safety. Company records obtained by Reveal from The Center for Investigative Reporting showed work-related injuries were 50 per cent higher at robotic facilities than in its conventional warehouses. Robots have become an efficient tool, but this has had a knock-on effect on workers’ productivity expectation, work intensity and pressure.
- While the Tesla chief executive, Elon Musk, has described automation as humanity’s ‘biggest existential threat’, the company’s aggressive production projections are affecting working conditions. Although there have been technology-related improvements to safety practices, together with incorporation of ergonomics principles into the design phase, the firm is struggling with workplace safety issues.
- In 2017, it was reported that Barclays used a tracking software, OccupEye, surreptitiously to monitor the presence of its workers at their desks, impinging on the privacy of staff and affecting their mental wellbeing.
The incorporation of automation, AI systems and so on in workplaces by technologically advanced companies is thus coming under intense public scrutiny. Associated practices have recently been exposed in American Factory, The Social Dilemma and The Great Hack, documentaries which have only scratched the surface of how world-leading tech firms have the potential to produce profound transformations in the global workforce.
It’s critical that organisations shift their business strategies from a technology-centric work culture to one that puts people at the centre. Corporations in the digital age need to keep pace with requirements for public disclosure, stronger due diligence and policies and practices for the governance of AI. And before individual technology transformations are deployed in a workplace, a safety assessment must be performed.
See our series of articles on the Transformation of Work
Dr Ivan Williams Jimenez is a policy and advocacy manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health in the UK. He supports IOSH’s global advocacy on health, safety and wellbeing, corporate social responsibility, sustainability, supply chains and decent work. The views expressed here are those of the author alone.