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January 19, 2016

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Horizon Scanning: making sense of the future

horizon

As the nature of work changes, Dr Helen Beers of the Health and Safety Laboratory’s (HSL) Foresight Centre explains how ‘horizon scanning’ can help employers to prepare for the future.

Since the late eighteenth century, when the transition from manual to steam-powered and automated manufacturing processes heralded the Industrial Revolution, our working world has continuously changed as a result of societal, technological, economic, environmental and political developments.

A century ago, concepts such as robotic manufacturing, near-instantaneous global communication, parcel delivery by drone and the virtual office would have been dismissed as science fiction. Today, they are reality and are transforming the way in which we work.

A shift in employee demographics is also shaping the way in which we will work in the future. Changes in socioeconomic factors have resulted in an ageing workforce as greater numbers of us decide to work later into life. Data from the Office for National Statistics shows that the percentage of workers aged 65 and over has doubled in the last decade.

The importance of looking ahead

For employers, understanding how these factors will affect the working world of the future – particularly in the context of protecting the health and safety of an ageing workforce – is essential for business continuity and productivity.

Anticipating the potential impact and implications for workplace health and safety of future trends and developments can help an organisation to create long-term strategic business plans, enabling them to respond and adapt to forthcoming changes instead of belatedly reacting to them.

Unfortunately, there is no ‘crystal ball’ that can definitively predict what the future will look like. But by using specialist ‘horizon scanning’ tools and techniques, HSL’s Foresight Centre can help to ensure that organisations and businesses in any sector are aware of, and can adequately prepare for, potential opportunities and threats.

Horizon Scanning: how it works

Effective horizon scanning involves systematically tracking and analysing trends, alongside anticipating what might ‘disrupt’ these trends in the future. It is not about ‘making predictions’ but rather looking at what might possibly happen, and what will probably happen in the future, based upon available data.

HSL’s Foresight Centre is one of several horizon scanning groups working across government. These conduct research into different areas of national interest. For example, one group recently considered the potential future availability and distribution of key resources such as energy, metals and minerals.

Established in 1911, the Health and Safety Laboratory is perfectly placed to anticipate a range of futures relating to health and safety and the changing nature of the working world.  With more than a century’s worth of experience and data to draw upon the Foresight Centre possesses an invaluable resource, since historical trends can be a useful guide to the future.

To add to this existing repository of futures knowledge, the Foresight Centre continuously scans a wide variety of online and offline information sources. The aim is to gather the latest insight and intelligence on emerging developments which may have implications for health and safety in the workplace.  This scanning activity covers a range of sectors and topics such as demographic change, economics, technology and social attitudes.  The Foresight Centre’s work supports the Health and Safety Executive’s strategic priorities, and also provides a service for a range of industry sectors.

Using appropriate methodologies, HSL’s Foresight Centre specialists analyse data to identify trends and extrapolate a range of alternative future scenarios. These scenarios can then help organisations to be prepared for probable future events that might impact or benefit them in some way.

What horizon scanning can tell us about the future working world

HSL’s research and analysis of carefully sourced information relating to the changing demographics of the workforce and the changing nature of work itself indicates a number of potential implications for health and safety.

For example, evidence suggests that manual work is continuing to decline; which may mean a reduction in some health risks for workers. However, as physical ‘bricks and mortar’ working environments give way to diversified remote and virtual working, employers face an increased challenge in assessing and managing the health and safety of their employees.

As life expectancy increases, working beyond the age of 65 may become the norm, whether through personal preference or financial necessity. Looking further into the future some commentators anticipate that employees may still be working when they are 100 years old.

There is little doubt that the way we work will be very different in the future.  With HSL’s help to prepare now for these possible eventualities, an organisation can become more resilient and better able to respond to forthcoming changes and developments.

In the coming weeks we’ll tell you more about how the working world is changing, what the future may hold and the role of HSL’s Foresight Centre.

Helen BeersHelen 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.

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