The future of occupational health & safety: industry megatrends
20 JUNE 2022 09:00 ◦ 21 MINUTES
In our rapidly changing world, organisations need to adapt to survive, whether in response to societal or consumer trends, the climate emergency, or geopolitical change. The changes needed to sustain our organisations will require adjustments to our Occupational Health & Safety Management Systems, to manage new risks and changing levels of risk. Alongside these wider trends, there are emerging issues more specific to OH&S management, to which organisations also need to respond.
In this episode, we continue our conversation with Martin Cottam Chair of the ISO Technical Committee for Occupational Health & Safety Management as we explore some of these trends and consider how they will affect health and safety in the workplace and the possible implications for the ISO 45000 series of standards.
We hear a lot these days about industry megatrends. Are these trends really things that are likely to affect our day-to-day management of occupational health and safety?
Yes, I think many of them are relevant to the management of occupational health and safety. Some organisations that I think will definitely recognise that they're already experiencing the effects of some of these megatrends. For others, the effect may not yet be noticeable, but it's certainly likely to become so within the working lifetimes of the people employed in the organisation today. There are a number of organisations that have defined what they see as the current megatrends, and that includes some financial institutions. Uh, some universities and others, but there's actually a great deal of similarity across those lists with the inclusion of trends such as the rise of technology. Urbanisation and the growth of cities. Uh, demographic change, climate change and resource scarcity. And when we look at some of these, it quickly becomes clear that there are definite implications for the management of occupational health and safety. Of course, for the management of many other aspects of organiser of the organisations too. So just some quick examples of some of the things I've mentioned, the rise of technology is what's often called the 4th Industrial Revolution, and it's well underway bringing with it the commercial and industrial use of drones and autonomous vehicles, Increased use of robotics artificial intelligence. It's estimated that between now and 2050 there will be more than a doubling of the number of devices connected via the Internet. From an OHS perspective, these changes will have a significant impact on many people's work. And that will be positives and negatives. It will bring benefits in enabling us perhaps to deploy drones and robots in place of humans in some hazardous environments. But it will create new and different risks if humans have to interact with machines and robots whose actions, for example, evolve overtime through machine learning. Moving to demographic change, that's something which is set to continue at pace with some countries experiencing shrinking populations. Many more experiencing aging populations. But conversely, elsewhere in the world, particularly in Africa we're likely to see growing and youthful populations. From an OHS perspective, that means that in many countries we're likely to see more women in the workforce. More people carrying on working into old age and perhaps more use of and dependence on migrant and immigrant workers, and those changes in the demographics of the workforce will require adjustments to our OHS provisions will potentially have a greater age range within the workforce than ever before. More divergence and diversity in peoples learning styles and ways of consuming information. Different attitudes to work and different expectations of employment and that different demographic will affect risks. It will affect the ways we induct and train and develop people, including from an OHS perspective. Moving on to think about climate change. Well, that's perhaps the one we're already experiencing and starting to adjust to many parts of the world are already experiencing an increase in the frequency. And the intensity of severe weather events. Putting workers at risk and causing business interruption. Whether that's from extreme heat or cold, too much rainfall causing flooding or too little rainfall causing water shortages. From an OHS perspective, we need to manage the risks from these events and that could be physical events for those working outdoors and being more vulnerable to heat stress or the effects of extreme cold. Or it could be risks to workers travelling to and from work or on business whose journeys are potentially affected by storms or flooding. But it's not just about physical harm. There may be consequential effects on workers, psychological health, and I'm thinking here about the sorts of effects that may be needed. The sorts of efforts sorry that may be needed to sustain a business after its operations have been disrupted by extreme weather. Perhaps to get it facility working again, or to catch up with the backlog of orders. There may be changed ways of working and need for additional shifts, pressures on productivity, perhaps all potentially causing stress or the temptation to cut corners, perhaps with regard to safety in the interest of getting things back on track as quickly as possible. The climate megatrend is often defined as extending to cover scarcity of resources. To a certain extent, we've seen some of the disruption this can cause since the start of the global pandemic, some listeners will remember the water crisis in Cape Town in South Africa in 2018, which had a huge impact on the city, including on work activities but there are also potentially more globally disruptive shortages, say of the rare metals that we need in ever larger quantities for our batteries, our electric vehicles, how smartphones or tablets. Such shortages could require businesses to re-design their products or their processes, thereby introducing new OHS risks or changing risk levels, meaning that we'll need to adjust our risk controls, possibly at relatively short notice. So, I think in all cases, these megatrends are clearly capable of impacting our management of occupational health and safety.
It seems also that these megatrends are fuelling the interest in organisational sustainability and operational sustainability. Is OHS generally seen as part of this sustainability agenda?
I think increasingly OHS is seen as part of sustainability, although I worry that there are still some people in some organisations who overlook the occupational health and safety component in sustainability. But when we see the three pillars of sustainability described as planet profit and people, it's pretty obvious, I think that workers and therefore occupational health and safety should be considered when we're talking about sustainability. For an organisation to be sustainable, it needs to be able to maintain, and I guess we're necessarily developing a sufficient workforce competence in their roles, able to carry out the tasks necessary for the success of the organisation and to sustain the organisation. Now there's been a lot of talk over the last year or so about the phenomenon labeled as the great resignation, referring to that re-evaluation by many workers in the months since the start of the global pandemic. Of what they want and expect from the world of work, and in particular from their employer, with many opting to change employer or change career direction. Only today, the BBC reported on a recent survey indicating that in the UK, one in five people expect to change jobs this year and we know that the younger generation in the workforce view employment very differently to the older generation, they don't plan to stay with one employer for a long period. Perhaps because they're less concerned about job security and wanted more varied career anyway, they have clear expectations around training and development and the way they're managed, they want to work for organisations whose purpose and values they can relate to and their expectations do specifically include occupational health and safety. I think this has been most visible during the pandemic from the way people have judged their employers over the support or lack of support provided in relation to their psychological health and well being. So to attract and retain talent from this younger generation organisations need to address these expectations, but also to be prepared for greater staff turnover, which may ultimately be inevitable and which creates challenges for the maintenance of occupational health and safety competency and performance. I think there's a second angle, too, to wear occupational health and safety fits into sustainability which is that we're also seeing evidence of investors, consumers, customers and other stakeholders reacting more strongly against organisations that are perceived as treating workers badly, including exposing them to poor physical working conditions or to psychological harm. So even if those workers don't vote with their feet and leave the organisation or if they do leave, they can be replaced. There's still a risk to the sustainability of an organisation that doesn't pay attention to occupational health and safety because it may struggle to raise funds, or it may struggle to sell its products or its services.
And what about specific threats to occupational health and safety? Should we be preparing for future pandemics?
In short, I think the answers yes, we should be preparing for future pandemics. I think one of the learnings from the COVID-19 pandemic is for organisations to review the way they consider the so-called low-frequency, high-impact events. When they're carrying out their risk assessments. It can be a bit too tempting to look at those events and focus on the fact that they are low frequency and therefore dismiss the events as incredible when perhaps we should focus a bit more attention on the fact that there may be a low frequency, but they are very high impact events and it's that high impact which perhaps justifies us investing a bit more time and effort considering whether we can mitigate that risk in some way. Now, from what I've read, it seems that with our increasing global population habitat degradation, pushing the human species into ever closer contact with other species, does an inevitably increase in the risk of interspecies transmission of an infectious disease, and of course, the extent of global travel today creates the potential for rapid global spread. As we've seen with COVID, it would seem more recently with Monkey Pox, certainly makes sense for organisations to draw together what they've learnt from COVID-19 and make sure that they retain, retain that learning within the organisation and improve their readiness to address any future pandemic. Actually it goes rather further than that, it's been very noticeable, I think over the last two years, that some of the measures that we've taken to address COVID-19 have also had a significant impact on the spread of other infectious diseases such as seasonal influenza, where the rates have been far lower than we have previously experienced, that means there's definitely scope for us to better manage the risks of those sorts of infectious diseases in the future where we might previously have just shrugged our shoulders and thought of seasonal influenza as both inevitable and unmanageable. But we now know that things like better hand hygiene, enhanced cleaning of high touch surfaces such as door handles, lift call buttons, and perhaps in particular, more firm discouragement of infectious people with symptoms from heroically struggling into the workplace and then infecting everybody around them. We know that these measures can significantly reduce the spread of infection. And let's remember, while seasonal influenza is rarely life threatening for fit and healthy people, there are people for whom there's a risk of more serious consequences and who we can better protect. There's also the economic effect of organisations and businesses whose operations can be quite significantly disrupted by high sickness absence levels during times when seasonal influenza is at its peak, that's one of the reasons why the ISO Technical Committee for Occupational Health and Safety Management has followed up on the publication of isobars 45,000 and five on managing the risks of COVID-19 in the workplace. By initiating work on the broader guidance standard on the managing of the risks of infectious diseases in the workplace, and that will be ISO 45,000 and six, which is due for publication towards the end of 2023. Now before publication, a draft version of this standard will be issued to national standards bodies for a ballot through which we seek their approval for publication. Many national standards bodies will release that draft for public comment as part of the approval process. I'd certainly encourage listeners to review the document and provide input at that stage. We do individually review every single comment that national standards bodies submit to us, so it really is possible to influence the content of standards like this.
And why we're discussing and while we're discussing future occupational health and safety risks, what about the trend in workers, psychological health, and wellbeing?
Well, the global pandemic has certainly broken down some of the taboos and stigma, which made people reluctant to discuss their psychological health, although I know there are exceptions to that generalisation. And perhaps the resulting uh coverage of this topic in the workplace might make it feel at times as if psychological health and well being are sort of a new challenge in OHS management that has only just emerged and that's not really true. The impact Of work on people's psychological health has actually been a significant issue long before the pandemic, it was already causing significant harm and causing significant costs for organisations, and it was on a rising upward trend. So unless we actively that upward trend is likely to continue after the effects of the pandemic dissipate. So this is definitely something I think we could call an OHS megatrend. And as we said a moment ago, we do now have a generation of workers in the workplace who really expect their employers to support their psychological health and well-being.
How do you see OHS standards evolving to address the megatrends and trends we've been discussing today?
I've already mentioned ISO 45006 for the new document currently under development. That's providing guidance on managing the risks of infectious diseases, but looking at more broadly, the ISO within the ISO Technical Committee, we've set up a group to identify and review emerging trends and issues in occupational health and safety and in OHS management. And they, by the way, liaise quite closely with an equivalent group in the ISO Technical Committee for Quality Management, the group that owns the ISO 9000 series of standards. So it's very much a joint effort between committees, all of which are trying to scan the horizon together. So our group's looking at the impact of the trends and issues that it has identified and its remit is to make recommendations as to whether and how these issues should be addressed in the ISO 45,000 series of standards. Now the group plans to publish a summary of its work on the ISO Technical Committee to 83 websites later this year to invite comments and feedback from standards users and from other interested parties. I'm sure this work will lead to changes in the standards. In fact, talking about worker demographics, we're already within the committee actively discussing the fact that we need to more explicitly encourage organisations to address the diverse needs of different individuals and groups of workers within the workforce, rather than just adopting measures that work only for the majority. I'm thinking here about properly considering factors such as gender and age, disability, ethnicity, and culture. But changes to the standards, in reality, will be quite gradual. Partly because all the standards in the ISO 45,000 series failed you through vision at different times, so there won't be one big change across the whole suite. And in fact, we've only recently decided to defer a revision of ISO 45,000 and one so the earliest date for revision to be published is probably 2026. But I think it's likely that most of the changes that do come along will be changes to guidance rather than to requirements. Because the basic plan does check act framework of requirements, it is at the heart of ISO 45,000 and one will continue to provide the mechanism within which we can address the emerging risks associated with these megatrends. Having said that, it is possible that we would consider, for example, adding a specific requirement for organisations to address the impacts of climate change. In fact, there's some discussion of exactly this going on currently in ISO following the commitments that were made at the COP 26 Climate conference. And so we are considering or ISO is considering when whether a change such as the one I've described should perhaps be made across all standards more urgently. Certainly from an ISO TC 283 perspective as a committee, we want our documents to be as up-to-date as possible in prompting people to consider the emerging issues of the day. Rather than being a sort of rear view mirror on what was needed in the past.