safety in work
Design and engineering

Health and safety: the future

05 of October of 2018

When health and safety professionals get together, a common topic is the future of the profession: what our work will be like one or two decades hence.

The profession has changed considerably since its origins in the early 1800s, when the first safety inspectors were hired under the Factories Act. There followed the Industrial Revolution, and many developments up to the enactment in the UK of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974; more recently, ISO 45001 became the standard for health and safety management at an international level.

People are naturally wary of what the future may bring. As organizations, we track developments, measure ourselves against leading players in our industries and engage outside consultants in search of insights into what the future may bring.

Senior managers of large corporations are increasingly seeing health and safety as a value rather than an imposition, and are working to enhance employee well-being.

Looking to the future of the health and safety industry, I think I can identify four key factors that can offer an insight into a very different future.

The rise of the “generalist”

With the maturity of the health and safety profession, standards are being implemented very rapidly, and many are also becoming obsolete at a similar pace, due to the emergence of new technologies and the development of in-house standards that are even more demanding than the existing legislation.

Many of the world’s leading schools teach health and safety, and professionals are better educated in this field, which is expanding rapidly. We are now required to know about engineering, workplace and organizational culture, statistics, human behavior, fire prevention, crisis management and emergency response, security, workplace illnesses, ergonomics, industrial hygiene, human resources and many other issues.

Increasingly we are also required to know about environmental issues, sustainability, quality and compliance. Job titles such as “safety manager” or “environmental manager” are steadily being replaced by QHSE positions at higher levels of management. At the same time, lower-level positions are being required to encompass much broader areas, resulting in specialization in such fields as quality, safety, health, environment and the response to emergencies. In larger organizations, the scope of health and safety will go beyond what a single person can address, and more specialists will be needed.

Nevertheless, it is very likely that generalists, who can offer a much broader viewpoint, will gain in influence.

Welfare is the new buzzword

This photo is an eloquent illustration of the sort of practices that used to be considered normal in the workplace. Nowadays, we are much more proactive and go beyond the mere issue of physical injury. Most of our work now focuses on eliminating behaviors and situations that might produce injury — quite a change from the time when that photo was taken, about a century ago.

I am convinced that employees’ overall welfare will be the next big thing. Stress in the workplace is increasingly important and statistics reveal that mental illness is now a leading cause of absenteeism. As safety professionals, we must be able to detect early signs of such conditions as depression, sleep deprivation and anxiety, and address their overall impact on morale and efficiency at work.

Safety professionals are also likely to find themselves dealing with psychological issues such as harassment, racism, bullying and violence in the workplace as part of investigations into complaints. There is also a growing trend towards intrepreneurship, working alone and working from home among new entrants to the workforce, and company policies will need to adapt accordingly.

Many organizations are also working to promote their employees’ overall health and that of their families. The concentration on health may have an impact on recruiting and increase the workload of occupational health practitioners, in particular. Employers now commonly use psychological tests as part of the recruitment process. In industries with higher levels of risk, a candidate’s attitude to risk-taking and safety may be decisive in the hiring decision. Genetics and behavioral factors may also have a significant impact on a person’s employability in the future.

safety work

Source: Unsplash | Author: rawpixel

Focus on behavioral change

There is a whole series of new buzzwords in the health and safety profession: “organizational behaviors”, “employee empowerment”, and “cultural change” are some examples. Organizational psychologists are already having a significant impact on our profession through the services of external consultants. Going forward, we are likely to see more demand for skills related to leadership diagnostics and organizational culture.

Behavioral safety will foreseeably become more sophisticated but the processes of observation and background analysis can be expected to be easier to manage using software. With the growing awareness of the linkage between safety and psychology, health and safety practitioners will almost certainly be required to devote more time to coaching and motivating employees as a core competence.

The focus on behavioral issues will undoubtedly result in more training, particularly using computers, videoconferencing and tablets within the overall change in culture. Workers will be able to access training courses in health and safety when and where they want. One of my previous employers allowed engineers to receive their plant health and safety orientation before they arrived for work for the first time. This pioneering initiative was very successful and I imagine the approach will become widespread. No longer will workers have to carry training certificates; all related information will be in the cloud and accessible to the employer as needed.

Here come the bots!

With the speed of technological change, work processes are changing every few years or even months. Risk evaluations in their current form can become obsolete very quickly, which poses risks to workers due to hazardous materials and new equipment.

The whole field of robotics has radically changed manufacturing. Production lines are much faster and more efficient than only a few years ago, and safety professionals will be called upon to inform the design of production lines to eliminate dangers to workers.

Multinationals such as BP, Hitachi and DHL have introduced wearables to monitor workers’ vital signs and enhance the response to emergencies. Workers can wear small smart devices to stay in contact with their crew and also log comments or incidents in the safety management system. As a result, it is now possible to standardize safety practices throughout an organization, overcoming language and cultural barriers.

For workers who spend much of their working day on the road or in remote locations, virtual safety meetings will make life a lot easier. The availability of digital photography and video will also make accident investigations more efficient, as video in particular will make it possible to determine how accidents occur and offer learning opportunities.

These are the trends that are shaping the future of health and safety, guided by international standards and compliant management systems. With the advances in digital technology, employers will have to consider the benefits and risks of new technologies and best practices so as to decide what is best for their business and their people.

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