Zero Harm? The Technology Paradox in the Workplace

It goes without saying that some jobs are riskier than others, and the 21st century has seen governments and regulators focus on mitigating some alarming statistics. In this article, Dr Jan Noordhof looks at who is most at risk, how the stats are trending, and why technology may well raise as many questions as it answers.

Most of us go to work confident that we won’t be killed or maimed on the job. We expect that our normal conditions of work will be safe and that risks in the event of an emergency will be managed in such a way as to minimize loss of life or damage to our health. We take all of this for granted, blissfully unaware of how much of occupational health and safety law is recent history, how much it varies from place to place and industry to industry, and how technology is proving itself a double-edged sword – by both creating new opportunities for worker protection, and also exposing them to new risks.

Who is at risk?

Being a member of a bomb disposal squad is inherently riskier than being a librarian. The former has fewer manageable risks and presents more probable and more catastrophic hazards (being blown up). Manageability is the key here.

Working as a fire fighter is undoubtedly risky, but public safety agencies have hard-won understanding of those risks, a healthy regard for preserving their critical resources (people), and well-established processes and tools for keeping their people safe. It is interesting to note that the major cause of firefighter fatality is not what we might imagine, but rather, caused by overexertion and stress. This is not to diminish the risk to firefighters, but based on employer-reported injuries and deaths in US, the most dangerous industries are Construction, Transportation, Agriculture and Forestry, Fishing and (perhaps surprisingly) Professional Services. Construction recorded the highest number of deaths, and was the only one to see an increase in both fatal occupational injuries counts and rates. (The other three industries decreased in total deaths and fatal injury rates from 2014 to 2015.)

These figures might be expected to differ across countries due to reasons such as the national mix of industries and employment (e.g. full time vs contracted vs casual), as well how the data are collected and analyzed. Moreover, as occupational safety experts have commented, inaccurate and incomplete occupational injury data is unfortunately a general feature of workplace injury reporting, regardless of where it is collected.  Nevertheless, a similar pattern appears across a number of developed countries.

In many countries, public sector workers fare better in accident/fatality statistics than workers in private industry. For example, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics for 2015 reports that public sector workers accounted for just 9% of occupational fatalities and had a lower fatal injury rate (1.9 per 100,000 FTEs) than their private sector counterparts (3.6).

So we can conclude that the most telling dissimilarity between firefighting and construction is that firefighting is a public service, whereas construction is a commercial enterprise. As a result, they operate with different priorities. Top of the firefighter’s list is saving lives and property, while the chief objectives of construction are to complete projects within time and cost targets.

Many private industries – not just construction – rely on regulatory authorities, such as the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), to tell them what to do. Protecting worker health and safety is treated mainly an exercise in compliance with regulatory standards. Globally the same pattern appears, with the burden of upholding occupational health and safety falling disproportionately on regulatory authorities, rather than employers and workers.

How technology impacts health and safety

While occupational safety laws first emerged in the nineteenth century, comprehensive health, safety and workplace environment management is largely a late twentieth century development. Technological change goes hand in hand with transformations in occupational health and safety. Technology brings new risks, but can at the same time drives improvements in equipment, knowledge, and communication for HSE. These examples can illustrate how the same technology development can create both new risks and new opportunities for HSE.

Mobile radio communications

The development of mobile radio communications meant that workers could better coordinate their work, respond to emergencies sooner, and pass on situational information without talking face-to-face. One very significant benefit was that police and fire operations became faster, more effective and safer as a result.

But in the presence of inflammable gases, a spark generated from a radio can trigger an explosion. Intrinsically safe radios were a response to this introduced hazard, but the protection they offer is limited to where the hazard has been identified.

Computers

Much of modern HSE management depends on the use of computers to store and process data, share complex information, and to communicate. Big data, which integrates huge chunks of data from multiple sources at high speed, uses complex algorithms to deliver assessments, conclusions or recommendations, and can even trigger actions.

This is the likely future of how large companies would like to manage their workforce, how they make hiring and firing decisions, tweak work schedules, set worker performance targets and so on. But reliance on complex algorithms to replace human decision making can create new risks when bad or dangerous decisions (for example, overloading a worker’s shift schedules) emerge from the computer.

Manufacturing automation and robotics

Automation has removed human workers from many repetitive and dangerous manufacturing operations. But human workers still remain on the factory floor, either to perform tasks currently not automated, or to service the automated machinery. While modern workers may be removed from some of the more obvious workplace hazards of days gone by, working beside complex, high-speed manufacturing chains introduces a new set of hazards for machinery operators and maintenance personnel.

Driverless vehicles

Trials are well advanced with driverless vehicles, not only for the trucking industry but also for mining. While this may eventually reduce highway fatalities (at least by removing the truckers altogether), not all trucking jobs will vanish. Many truckers, particularly on construction sites, do more than just drive. Even if construction site vehicles were to be fully automated, they would then constitute a new risk for other workers at the site. Similarly, at mines, driverless vehicles may cut vehicle accidents around the pit, but they also pose a new hazard for the remaining human workforce, during mining operations or maintenance.

As yet, it remains unclear what system would be used to manage a pool of driverless vehicles and what failure scenarios could arise.

If there is a general moral to be drawn from these examples, it is this: technological change may mean that zero harm is ultimately unachievable since the goal post is ever shifting. But at the same time, the benefits of these technologies to worker health and safety also enable us to get closer to the zero harm goal. Even now, with decades of experience behind us, and heroic attempts by various governments, regulators, unions and employers, there remain many questions to be answered, and there is still a long way to go before the goal of zero harm in the workplace is achievable.


This article is taken from Connection magazine, Issue 8. Connection is a collection of educational and thought-leading articles focusing on critical communications, wireless and radio technology. Read Connection 8 now, or share your views, comments and suggestions in the Tait Connection Magazine LinkedIn group.

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