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March 14, 2016

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The future of health and safety: in conversation with Helen Beers, HSL

Helen BeersHSE’s Foresight Centre at the Health and Safety Laboratory carries out varied and thought provoking work.  Its aim is to help organisations manage uncertainty, become more agile, and resilient to risks.

In the space of a single day Helen Beers might provide clients with insights about what their sector could look like in the future, and also consider the health and safety implications of connecting cows to the internet!

Here, she tells Roz Sanderson a bit more about the Foresight Centre’s work:

The Foresight Centre works with organisations across a wide range of industry sectors. What sort of questions do they typically come to you with, and how do these relate to workplace health and safety?

Basically, our team can add value for anyone who wishes to improve their strategic planning, and anticipate and prepare for the future. For example, a human resource professional in industry could ask us “what will our sector look like in the future”, and might use the information we provide to inform their decision-making or workforce planning.

Likewise, regulators and Government departments want to use our insights to support strategy development and decision making, to help prepare workplace health and safety for the future, or to develop research priorities.

For example, we have just been asked by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work to carry out a comprehensive evaluation of the potential impact that the spread of information and communication technologies, and the changes in work location, may have on workers’ health and safety. This foresight will have a 10-year time horizon and will also consider what new and emerging occupational safety and health risks might result from these changes.

But whether in the public or commercial sector, our customers will typically ask us to support them with gaining a better understanding about current, new, emerging and potential issues (e.g. advances in technology), and their possible implications for specific organisational activities.

What might your findings mean for organisations?

On a daily basis our team finds, stores, and analyses evidence relating to a wide variety of issues and sectors, ranging from agriculture to zero hours contracts. We could find that trends are continuing to develop in an expected direction, yet we may also spot something which threatens to disrupt them, and has potential implications for workplace health and safety.

The concept of co-working (shared working environments, where professionals from a number of different organisations work alongside each other) has emerged as one of the fastest growing trends of recent years.  And as working patterns continue to become more varied, health and safety risks may also become increasingly difficult to manage.

One of the key trends I am seeing a lot about at the moment is the development of artificial intelligence, machine learning and machine intuition (where algorithms are used to recognise patterns and learn from data).  Whilst artificial intelligence has been around for many years now, it seems to be entering a period of almost exponential development, as machines are increasing in capability, to the extent that they will transform and displace some professional work.  For organisations, this means that whilst some jobs will disappear, new ones are likely to emerge.

To help inform organisations’ short-term and longer-term strategic decision making we are often asked about the impact, for example, that technologies will have.  By developing scenarios for a number of possible ‘futures’, and producing options that illustrate how business decisions might ‘play out’, this means that organisations can prepare themselves, today, for the workplace of tomorrow.

Imagine if workplace products could ‘develop’ themselves.  This may not be such a daft suggestion, as experimental advertising posters are already writing themselves by sensing the presence of passers-by and learning from their reactions.

The Foresight Centre team does something known as ‘horizon scanning’. What is this, and how do you achieve it?

We don’t just sit and look at the news, or carry out Google searches all day!  The process involves searching and reviewing a vast amount of information from many different, carefully selected, sources.  Selection might focus on a specific issue or sector, or be more general and cross-cutting.  In all cases it is based on the reputation of the sources, and is combined with our own experience and knowledge.  Our search strategy includes the use of a bespoke automated scanning tool, which enables us to search a large volume of data sources.

We constantly keep an eye on what other leading ‘futures’ thinkers are saying.  For example, some suggest that within the next 25 years artificial intelligence may be unstoppable, (humans will begin to lose understanding and control, with their minds gradually being taken out of decision making processes).

We continually ask ourselves: How are existing trends progressing?  Is anything happening now that might have a significant impact on these trends? What are others anticipating the future will look like?  And most importantly for us, as you might expect since we are part of HSE, what might the health and safety implications be?

It sounds as though horizon scanning can be quite an involved and technically challenging process. What skills do the members of HSL’s Foresight Team need to possess in order to anticipate, for example, the future of the working world and its implications for health and safety?

Our team has a range of academic backgrounds. For example, I’m from a social science and psychology background, and I’ve worked in the finance, education and health sectors. What we all share, though, is intellectual curiosity along with an ability to synthesise data, and carry out exploratory research in an intuitive and imaginative way.  We can explore any particular issue and imagine what might be possible in the future, whilst still remaining grounded in the data: our work is always based on evidence.

We use data, along with our experience and intuition, to judge where patterns might be.  Then we might synthesise this into coherent stories (or scenarios) which present a few possible futures for the working world, including potential implications for health and safety.  We are always mindful of what has gone before, as this provides context and an indication of how patterns have developed so far.

Our ability to draw on over a century of corporate knowledge and experience (HSL was established in 1911), and access to specialist topic and sector knowledge and experience from across the whole of HSE, enables us to review and ‘sense check’ our findings.  We also work closely with other specialisms such as HSL’s graphic design team (with whom we produce infographics to provide visual presentations of our findings).

What sorts of benefits might an organisation derive from the work of HSE’s Foresight Centre?  In recent years we’ve seen the emergence of drones, driverless vehicles, commercial space flight and unprecedented medical breakthroughs. You’ve mentioned a bit about technology already but can you give us any insights into any exciting technological developments we might see in the future?

I’m certain that technology will continue to have an even greater influence on our working lives, and will fundamentally restructure our work in the future. Not only is technology changing how and where work is done, it is changing the type of tasks that people do as part of their jobs.

Technology is developing at such a rapid pace with ever increasing numbers of ‘things’ connecting together via the internet (you might have heard this referred to as the internet of things!)  In fact some commentators are saying that pretty much everything will eventually become connected to the internet – even cows! (An American company is making a ‘pill’ which, when swallowed by the cow, uses sensors to transmit data such as heart rate, respiration, and temperature to the farmer).  You might ask: could humans be next?

The interesting thing for me is how we, as a workforce, are interacting with developments in technology.  Might technology be taking away our ability to conduct critical analysis and thinking?  Will we be rendered useless if the technology breaks down?

I am picking up some interesting insights on differences between generations.  For example, those workers born from around 1980 onwards have been suggested to believe that every problem can be solved using data, algorithms and the right technology. These are the generations who have never known a world without the internet; they value flexibility at work and expect a good work-life balance. There is also an interesting debate about how the human brain is evolving in response to technology.  There is a view that memories are becoming hyperlinks to information (so the need to internalise information is being removed), and we are developing a ‘quick fix’ approach to sourcing information (devoting little or no time to reaching conclusions or investigating answers).

Of course there are both negative and positive implications of technological developments.  A positive example might be the emergence of industries using direct neural interfaces (between computing devices, infrastructure, and the human brain) which have the potential to tackle issues around ageing and disability.  There is also talk about ‘artificial emotional intelligence’, which will be capable of mapping brain activity and alerting us to our emotions.  The resulting self-knowledge might improve our ability to interpret our emotional functioning and psychological state, and therefore prevent us from making catastrophic errors.

Whilst we see things developing in a certain direction, of course everything is prone to disruptions. This is why it’s important for us to constantly challenge what we are finding, to look at issues holistically, and consider the potential risks and threats to workplace health and safety. Nothing operates in isolation and if something happens to influence one part of a system, then it’s likely to have repercussions for the rest.

We have developed a broad approach to working with our clients, based on scanning and storing information, solving (analysis and synthesis) and sharing it.  This is an approach that can be tailored to all organisations and issues.

Helen joined HSL in 2009 with responsibility for leading HSL’s social research work. She is currently the Technical Team Lead within HSL’s Foresight Centre, where her work focuses on demographics and ageing. Helen has a PhD in Health Psychology and prior to joining HSL worked within the health, education and finance sectors. If you’d like to find out more about the work of HSE’s Foresight Centre at the Health and Safety Laboratory, please email: [email protected] 

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