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May 11, 2010

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SHE10 – An eye to the future

A number of possible future scenarios that could have a big impact on health and safety at work were outlined by Peter Ellwood, head of the HSL Futures team.

The Futures discipline encompasses a range of techniques that explore, but do not predict, the future, including horizon, or environmental, scanning and scenario building. The HSL’s Horizon Scanning department, set up in 2004, systematically examines potential threats around the margins of current thinking and planning.

Ellwood described a number of scanning categories used by the HSE that have the potential to affect health and safety at work. Under the ‘social’ category, for example, demographics are key to H&S and affect the number of people at work as well as the kinds of jobs they do. The Futures team foresees a growth of two million in the number of jobs by 2017, a continuing decline of the manufacturing sector, but an increase in jobs in the knowledge and service sectors, affecting the types of risk workers are exposed to. There will be more managers and older workers and fewer skilled workers. Flexible working patterns will grow in popularity, and with a harder-to-reach workforce, so H&S issues will be harder to monitor.
Globalisation drives many changes that affect working patterns, such as increased availability of products and services from around the world. Quality issues with products from the Far East may result in manufacturing moving back into the UK, Ellwood said. Generation Y, those born between 1984 and 1998, have different lifestyles and expectations. For example, they are likely to experience a number of jobs in their lifetime, and, as ‘digital natives’, communicate very differently from previous generations.
Technology, including nanotechnology, biotechnology and ICT, is a huge growth area. The growth of identification tagging brings some safety benefits, such as the ability to track people working in dangerous jobs, but the downside is an over-reliance on computers and the potential stress produced in the workplace by surveillance and the reduction of human contact.
Companies are increasingly doing business in virtual worlds, such as that depicted in ‘Second Life’, and there is increasing government interest in virtual worlds for purposes such as tax collection. As far as H&S is concerned, cyber-bullying is an increasing possibility. The value of the virtual conferencing market will burgeon to a value of $18.6 billion in the next few years.
The use of robotics is also on the increase, especially in Japan and Korea, while artificial intelligence may be only ten years away. Robots are becoming quicker and cheaper, and are increasingly used in the care sector and in warehouses in the Far East. In Japan, there are now robot suits that can carry a 150kg load and take the workload off humans. This leads to questions such as: what would happen if they malfunctioned? How stable is a person lifting ten times their normal capacity?
Genetic testing in the workplace has huge potential privacy and ethical issues. In the USA, employer testing is illegal, although it is not yet so in the UK. There is an H&S benefit in that genetic testing can identify people susceptible to chemicals, but it could also prevent people from doing their jobs if they are sensitive to them.
Climate change is a key driver of jobs in the energy sector and waste and recycling, one of the most dangerous industries in which to work. The growth in energy technologies is huge, and the HSE is focusing on carbon capture and storage, natural gas storage, and renewables as key areas for the next ten years. Another emerging technology is the hydrogen economy, such as its use in vehicles and for storing energy from renewables. Distribution and the vehicles used for this have possible H&S implications.
Human performance enhancement is another important area, such as the use of drugs and implants. Peer pressure that makes people feel they ought to take these drugs to keep up with their workmates is a potential worry, added Ellwood.
To test the robustness of H&S policies, the Futures team has produced a series of scenarios for 2017 on what the future might look like. Its Green scenario shows technologically-aware, self-sufficient people; a Digital Rose Garden shows ‘fully switched-on’ new businesses employing the best brains, the Tough Choices scenario shows a declining economy and slowing innovation, while the Boom and Blame scenario is one of increasing privatisation and a free market.

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