AMSJ » The future of work health & safety in a digital economy

The future of work health & safety in a digital economy

Internet of things technology concept. Smart app shows global Internet of Things on the screen. Vector illustration with wireless connections with icons of smart electronics.

The impact of the digital economy and subsequent use of digital technology on work health and safety will present with many opportunities but there will be many hurdles for health & safety professionals and businesses as they adapt with and realise the impact of digitalisation of business (Industry 4.0) globally.

First published in the SPRING 2020 edition of Australasian Mine Safety Journal

With the onset of COVID-19, many businesses have quickly embraced the digital revolution through adoption of non-standard work arrangements and new technologies that allow large workforces to work remotely. But futurists say its’ just the beginning of the next revolution as artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics becoming entrenched in our working environment. Humans will need to interface with and interpret, significant data sets that provide organisations with increased capability, production outputs and capacity and the state of markets they operate in, in real time.

While it’s true that these technologies will provide benefits, they also present a range of challenges particularly for the health & safety profession and the Government’s that regulate safety & health in industry. The focus and competencies of health and safety professionals may evolve from administratively ensuring people are protected from high risk activities to ensuring that intelligent systems deliver a level of integrity in protecting workers from high risks.

In a recent paper produced for the future of work initiative, a team of US based researchers from the US National Institute of Health & Safety stated that the future of work will be “shaped by ongoing changes in the workplace, work, and workforce, and by advances in technology connecting people, places, and things.”

It said, “these changes have led to increased focus, prioritisation efforts, and a call-to-action to address associated new and existing worker safety, health, and well-being determinants and outcomes with significant implications during these uncertain and evolving times.”

Tamers (2020) stated “Chiefly, continued developments in organisational design, technological job displacement, and work arrangements are affecting the workplace to a greater extent than ever before; advances in artificial intelligence, robotics, and technologies are influencing progressively more how work itself is conducted; and changes in demographics, economic security, and skills are increasingly impacting the workforce.”

Additionally, global bodies like the World Bank, have also foreshadowed significant changes in The World Development Report (WDR) 2019: The Changing Nature of Work. The authors stated “We know that robots are taking over thousands of routine tasks and will eliminate many low-skill jobs in advanced economies and developing countries. At the same time, technology is creating opportunities, paving the way for new and altered jobs, increasing productivity, and improving the delivery of public services.”

“With increasing technological innovation, we can expect more blind disruptors- those things that will hit us unexpectedly and have a more immediate impact. We face a future of work with more unknowns than knowns, where constant vigilance and proactive attitudes/capacities to change are what steer organisations forward. These capacities to both steer constant change, but also pivot as necessary will be likely scenarios organisations face on a frequent basis.”

Report prepared by Minerals Council of Australia, 2020

COVID-19 advances the future of work

“COVID-19 has accelerated the arrival of the future of work,” says Saadia Zahidi, Managing Director of the World Economic Forum. “Accelerating automation and the fallout from the COVID-19 recession has deepened existing inequalities across labor markets and reversed gains in employment made since the global financial crisis” in 2007 and 2008.

The World Economic Forum report estimates that by 2025, automation will eliminate some 85 million jobs around the world. But the good news is that technology will add another 97 million new jobs, many in healthcare, artificial intelligence, and content creation, according to the report’s authors.

The report forecasts demand for workers in green economy jobs as well as professionals in engineering, cloud computing, and product development.

Mining jobs are also being affected with the onset of automated operations

The onset of mining automation is expected to impact 40,000 frontline mining jobs by 2030. NERA (2019) Staying ahead of the game report said that frontline miners will be affected but be offset by 69,000 new jobs in the supply chain and another 53,000 new jobs in the wider economy.

Health and safety will also be affected. The profession, a traditional frontline people centric role, is also likely to rapidly change with the advancement of big data and intelligent engineering approaches that eliminate personnel from accessing high risk work environments.
Indeed, safety personnel may run the risk of being set aside if they do not adapt and gain a breadth of knowledge on how automated operations integrate with the workforce. It’s not just about the warm and fuzzy safety anymore. Its’ about ensuring the integrity of rules-based machine decisions that take into account potential human impacts in real time.

Technology threats also bring opportunities

It’s clear that big data gathered through integrated sensor networks will assist in real-time risk assessment for people across a range of industries. But with highly sophisticated systems like cognitive decision support tools, integrated sensor arrays, there is an emerging need to ensure that the range of data can be used effectively and, more importantly, that the rules are created and that the machine cannot “step outside the rules that ensure critical safety.”

It will be challenging for the health and safety profession to emerge as sentinels of potential failure of machine systems, but the health and safety profession could bring a holistic multidisciplinary perspective to the table.

A lot of failures can be hidden in computer code if it is not subjected to the highest levels of scrutiny. While health and safety professionals are unlikely to be proficient coders, he or she must be able to explore and understand the potential impacts that code can have on the workforce which he or she is tasked to protect. The health and safety professional can provide design oversight and ultimately ensure assumptions made by system designers provide adequate levels of protection for human machine interactions.

They must seek to expose substandard engineering decision-making that results in machine compliance failure and encourage ethical approaches to machine decisions affecting safety of personnel. Sounds a little daunting…it is!

Take the 737 Max for example.

When two 737 MAX passenger aircraft crashed in late 2018 and early 2019 due to system design failures, Boeing grounded its global fleet of the aircraft and an investigation began into Boeing’s internal culture associated with its software design. The air safety regulator, the FAA, also was thrown into the spotlight.

The USA House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee’s Democratic majority said in its report that “There was a horrific culmination of a series of faulty technical assumptions by Boeing’s engineers, a lack of transparency on the part of Boeing’s management, and grossly insufficient oversight by the FAA.”

The committee said that “Boeing ultimately failed in its design and development of the 737 MAX, and the FAA failed in its oversight of Boeing and its certification of the aircraft.”

These failures were fundamental to safety of the thousands of passengers that Boeing carries around the world, but they were not captured in Boeing’s engineering or safety processes.

Could they have been different if a functional safety professional was part of the team?

The Robots Are Coming Now

Human machine interactions, as in the Boeing 737 Max disaster have highlighted that when things go wrong with critical safety systems, disaster can strike.

While some recognise the risks of disaster, many organisations are adopting new technology at a rapid rate across workplaces. including:

  • Service robots that perform specific tasks like cleaning public spaces; delivering items in hospitals and hotels; fighting fires; and performing inspections, maintenance, and repairs in confined spaces;
  • Automated industrial vehicles like mining trucks, driverless forklifts and tractors and automated vehicles used to haul materials in mining that could one day be piloted for the transit of people and commercial goods delivery;
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or drones) increasingly used to evaluate structures and worksites and may one day be used for the delivery of goods; and
  • Wearable exoskeletons and exosuits designed to reduce stress on some body parts and augment human workers’ physical capacity.

Apart from the physical aspects of there is an ever-growing concern that the social impacts of the technology may result in a social disaster. There is a growing concern among workers about job loss or displacement due to robots. If robots do displace workers, more displaced workers may find work in the “gig” economy, along with all the accompanying adverse effects of nonstandard work arrangements.

The CFMEU’s District President Stephen Smyth has made his position clear. He wants more coal royalties for companies that want to automate jobs.

“Automation and technology will frame our industry, but it shouldn’t be a given we should accept it,” he said. “People shouldn’t be falling over themselves to embrace this new technology.”

Smyth argued that the resources industry should be shut down before companies could bypass people and use machines to operate fully automated mines.

“We’d argue the coal should stay in the ground. There’s no benefit to us” Smyth said.

A holistic approach to worker safety needed in the age of robots

While we recognise that the physical risk and social risks remain real, some organisations like the US based NIOSH and its’ research partners are examining other possible little-known effects of Industry 4.0 on the workforce.

These include a range of new materials in additive manufacturing (3D) printing, and the development of biology-based processes to replace traditional manufacturing. Synthetic biology innovations may well also affect industries from forestry and farming to biofuels, genetics, and food production. Indeed, the use of a range of advanced biological processes is also emerging in the resources sector.

A range of industry pundits have even stated that Industry 4.0 and the digital future requires an “OSH 4.0” response – an expanded, more holistic, and multi-/transdisciplinary approach to confront complex safety issues. It means a shake-up of work safety as we know it and the need to re-position the safety professional’s role in organisations.

While the future of work poses significant but not yet fully understood challenges, exposures, and hazards, it also presents many new opportunities for workplaces, work, and workforce interventions.

Proactive organisations and governments are already busily trying to prepare an evidence base for their approach. Unsurprisingly the evidence suggests that many organisations are lagging behind the complex changes on the horizon with little achieved in terms of regulatory regimes.

The skills shortage

One thing is clear. There will likely be an ongoing skill shortage for personnel, including safety professionals who can support and interact with innovative technologies including artificial intelligence, machine learning and connected devices through the Industrial Internet of Things.

Research published recently by global mobile communications company Inmarsat found that a significant proportion of mining organisations lack the diverse range of skills needed to take full advantage of the Internet of Things (IoT) and digitalisation.

It said “Despite a significant uptick in IoT adoption across the sector in recent years, this shortage in IoT skills is impeding further innovation across the sector, with figures showing that most IoT deployments continue to be relatively straightforward. To drive further innovation and harness the benefits offered by more complex IoT projects, the mining sector must look to address immediately its ongoing IoT skills deficit.”

Global consulting company EY (2020) stated in a report on oil and gas digital skills that organisations rate data analytics skills importance at 91%, however the current maturity in this space is estimated only to be 32%. It said the importance of skills are well justified in eliminating unplanned shutdowns alone. EY has reported ‘an oil and gas company, on average, faces nearly 27 days of unplanned downtime annually, amounting to losses of nearly US$38 million to US$88 million.’

In the resources sector, cost and safety benefits for automation are now a feature of the positions held by big miners. The Minerals Council of Australia argue that new technology and innovative practices will enhance the performance and productivity of 42 per cent of Australian mining jobs, with a further 35 per cent of occupations being redesigned and upskilled leading to more valuable employment opportunities.  Automation will give the opportunity for reskilling into other areas.

They say that 77 per cent of jobs in Australian mining will be enhanced or redesigned due to technology within the next five years and they have laid out a platform that highlights skills needs including;

  • Change Management
  • Collaboration
  • Complex Stakeholder Engagement
  • Creativity
  • Data Analysis
  • Data and Digital Literacy
  • Design Thinking
  • Stakeholder Analysis
  • Strategic Planning

The Minerals Council report (completed by consulting group EY) has even identified where anticipated reductions and increases in workforces will be made. Table 1 & 2 are excerpts of from this report.

According to the report, the movement of skills will also transition sooner rather as automation gains momentum. We will see traditional operational roles impacted significantly.

Preparing for the inevitable

While some in the industry remain circumspect regarding the onset of automation, there is a broad range of evidence that supports future change is not too far away. That change will impact how we manage our safety programs, safety systems and the role safety professionals play in machine safety.

Safety professionals should heed the warning to develop competencies in automation, data-based decisions, and digital literacy as we rocket towards OSH 4.0, lest work safety professionals be left behind.


  • Frey, C.B. and Osborne, M.A. 2013, ‘The Future of Employment: How Jobs are Susceptible to Computerisation’, Oxford Martin Programme on Technology and Employment.
  • How do you reshape when today’s future may not be tomorrow’s reality? Oil and Gas Digital Transformation and the Workforce Survey 2020, Published 2020, EYGM Pty Ltd, Available online at [][Accessed October 2020.
  • NERA Staying ahead of the Game, 2019, Available Online at [] Accessed October 2020.
  • The Future of Work: The Changing Skills Landscape for Miners, Report Minerals Council of Australia [Online at] Accessed October 2020.

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