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May 19, 2011

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SHE11 – Horizon scanning and understanding the future

“No one can predict the future, but what we can do is look at trends in a lot of different areas, from science and technology, to politics, to try and figure out what the world might look like in 10 years,” explained Dr Sam Bradbrook, senior scientist in the futures team at the Health & Safety Laboratory (HSL).

The main tool used by the HSL to look at the future and how it could impact on new and changing risks in the workplace and therefore on health and safety is Horizon Scanning, a system of examining potential threats and opportunities and likely future developments at the margins of current thinking and planning.

Horizon Scanning examines a number of categories, from societal (including demographics, education and working patterns), technological (including nanotechnology, biotechnology and energy), economic (globalisation, recession, sectoral shift), environmental (climate change, recycling and emerging pests and diseases), and political (public attitudes to risk).

Dr Bradbrook predicted that there will be a lot of jobs available in the area of emerging energy technologies in the next 10 years, with particular focus on artificial intelligence and the use of robots. “Large increases in computer power, advances in sensors and control software and decreasing costs are facilitating the development of free-ranging robots in the workplace. They are used in Japan, and some of them can climb stairs, serve drinks and recognise faces, although they currently cost $200,000 a year to hire and are unlikely to be seen in the UK workplace in the next 20 years,” he said.

“The main problem with robots is that artificial intelligence is lagging behind, but over the next 10 years, more sophisticated robots will start entering the workplace, especially in the food and healthcare industries, warehouses, construction, security work and agriculture,” he said. However, Dr Bradbrook warned, this may lead to the increased risk of accidents and injury since the robots will be operating in close proximity to the public and workers, as they still will need human beings to interact with them.

Current legislation is based on the segregation of robots and humans, so this would need updating, but robots have huge advantages in that they do not need to be paid, they don’t take time off sick and they do not need heated and lit premises to work in.

Dr Bradbrook also talked about the potential implications for the workplace of brain-enhancing drugs such as Ritalin and Modafinil, implants and replacement body parts such as the bionic assisted limbs in use in Denmark and Japan that amplify a person’s strength 10-fold. He predicted these may enter UK workplaces within the next 10 years, especially the ‘smart drugs’ that are already freely available over the internet.

“Such drugs could lead to increased pressure on people to work 24/7,” he warned. “They could also lead to coercion in stressful environments such as A&E, or could pose a risk to public safety if taken by airline pilots or bus drivers, for example.”

Are these drugs cheating or do they improve the quality of work? The answer is we simply do not know, Dr Bradbrook concluded.

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