Report calls for employers to understand health and safety risks of modern work

22 Feb 2018 By Marianne Calnan

Businesses urgently require ‘more strategic view’ of future of work for employee wellbeing 

A new report by the British Safety Council (BSC) has examined the health and safety risks of the future workplace, urging employers to assess and improve their and their employees’ understanding of the dangers of new technologies and the future skills required for work.

The Future risk report, conducted by Robertson Cooper and published on 21 February, emphasises the need for people practitioners and businesses, trade unions, educators, regulators and governments to understand and mitigate against the changing risks of the future workplace. 

The BSC called for the regulatory systems that protect modern workers to be updated to mitigate risks arising from future technology, as machines and employees are expected to work together more. These included the physical risks of working in close proximity with robots. 

It also raised the question of where responsibility and liability lie when automation at work goes wrong. The report suggested that research needed to improve “if we are going to take action to enhance people’s physical and mental wellbeing”.

Given that automation is set to replace around a quarter of a million public sector jobs in the next 15 years, and the growing gig economy and changes in the ways people are working, the BSC suggested allowing gig workers legal, social and employment protections and rights. 

It said the government should do more through its industrial strategy to enable gig economy workers to take certain minimal social protections and rights with them, wherever they work. 

The government recently responded to Matthew Taylor’s Good Work: The Taylor Review of Modern Working Practices, postponing any regulation until further consultation.

With 11 million jobs predicted to be lost in the next 20 years in the UK, it said some gig working may “undermine such basic human needs as social identity, economic security and a sense of belonging”.

The BSC said employers and researchers should share best practice around quality job design to help create and retain positive employee and employer relationships as the shift away from traditional working practices continues. 

Professor Sir Cary Cooper CBE, president of the CIPD, professor of organisational psychology and health at the University of Manchester and founder of Robertson Cooper, said that because of a decrease in loyalty between staff and organisations, “retaining healthy, high-performing employees is even more important”.

Organisations, the report said, must have policies to ensure work is rewarding, healthy and safe. The BSC said there was strong evidence that ‘good work’ improves employees’ productivity and health.

It said new technologies would give employees more tools for self-determination, and could enable older workers to stay healthier for longer. 

Another risk is employee stress and mental ill-health, particularly given the fresh pressures of modern work. Working alongside technology such as intelligent machines and robots, for instance, could add to those pressures as they outperform humans and require new skills.

To counteract this, the BSC recommended that employers introduce specialist training and wellbeing programmes to help employees gain skills to build their resilience to new technologies. 

For employers, it suggested that the government look at incentives for those that implement health and wellbeing programmes, such as tax breaks. 

Matthew Holder, head of campaigns at the BSC, said: “At a time when work is rapidly changing, whether through technological innovation or types of employment, there is an urgent need to have a more strategic view on what research says about the future of work and risk, and how these two issues are related.”

Cooper added:  “We know that work is changing, which is why there is currently so much conversation about the future of work. However, we know less about the risks this might bring to the health, wellbeing and safety of employees, so it’s a challenge for businesses to prepare.”

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