Introduction

What did we do before we had smartphones and tablets? How do we get to where we are going without GPS? How will my friends know I am brushing my teeth unless I post a photo of myself in the act?!

These are all profound questions that obviously relate to the huge and rapid explosion of technology and connectivity in our daily lives. In this article, we will examine how the fourth industrial revolution (a.k.a. Industry 4.0) will, or could, impact EHS (Environmental, Health and Safety) policies, laws and regulations in the future.

Unless you are a hermit that has been surviving off grubs in the Australian outback the past 20 years, you will have noticed rapid technological developments.We are consistently seeing new initiatives leveraging advancements like artificial intelligence, robotics, the internet of things and autonomous vehicles. The scale, speed and impact of such technologies are already reshaping how we work, communicate, share and learn.

I recently witnessed a great presentation by Sam Bradbrook, Senior Scientist at the UK Health and Safety Executive (HSE) Science Laboratory on this very topic. It is, in itself, interesting that the HSE has a division dedicated to the impact of our changing world on health and safety matters.

Industry 4.0 will inevitably change the way we do things on a fundamental level and bring many benefits to mankind. The traditional concept of “work” will change; there is likely to be a continued pressure on our natural resources to provide (clean) energy to fuel the constant thirst of the huge datacenters that are needed to sustain a data-driven economy. It is also the nature of such rapid progress that things can—and will—go wrong on occasion. When things go wrong, they can often lead to regulation to prevent similar issues recurring. Laws and policies often play catch-up with industrial innovation: Take for example the widespread use of nanotechnology and nanomaterials over the past decade, and the fact that regulators have taken a number of years to identify and act on the potential risks to health and the environment presented by these.

Laws and policies often play catch-up with industrial innovation.

Forward-thinking law and policymakers may also tackle issues proactively, predicting and preventing what might go wrong. It is in this context of law and policy that we will here examine the future of work.

 

The Effect of Industry 4.0 on Jobs & the Environment

Technology is a key driver of workplace change and is already altering how we perceive work. Tech is already influencing the jobs on the market—big data analysts; software developers, social-media consultants are now omnipresent—and the tasks that need to be done in existing “traditional” jobs (where, for example, workers are continually asked to input data into computers and to track and log performance).

 

Remote Work

The numbers of those working remotely has been on the rise for a number of years. As technology improves (e.g., more reliable high-speed internet around the world, improved collaborative technology and cloud file sharing) and benefits that remote work brings increase—to the environment (less travel) as well as health and well-being (work-life balance, mental health, etc.)—the trend will continue.

However, the increase in remote work is not necessarily all positive regarding EHS issues. For example, there is a risk that this increase in remote working will blur the distinction between work and home life. If your workplace is essentially available at any time, then working 24/7 becomes possible. It is also worth considering that mobile technology and devices are not necessarily designed to not have lasting effects on the human body—or mind.

 

Crowdsourcing

Another development we are seeing around the world is the “crowdsourcing” economic model. This is defined as paid work (or ideas or finance) organized through online labor exchanges. These services rely on a large, relatively open and often rapidly-evolving group of workers that connect online. (e.g., “Wwoofers”, “Turks”, Deliveroo riders, etc.).

Clearly, this type of work already exists and is growing rapidly. Again, this model of working can have positive impacts. It can bring new social and economic opportunities globally by creating a flexible workforce. It can also enable work access for people who would otherwise be excluded—such as those disabled, less-abled, young parents or older workers. However, there are also potential risks, both for offline (i.e., physical) jobs and those carried out solely online.

Regarding physical risks: If work is classified as freelance, there is a risk that legal health and safety responsibilities can be externalized; as a result, the risk and responsibilities are transferred to individual workers. In addition, there may not have been a sufficient risk or ergonomic assessment carried out of the work in question. Some work may be in jobs that are notoriously dangerous (such as construction or forestry) and physical risks may be increased by a lack of experience or training. There can also be pressure to meet tight deadlines or targets may force a rapid pace of work without breaks.

There can also be numerous psychosocial and health risks for this new online crowdfunded workforce.

For example, a lot of the work is short-term, making job security precarious. There are often rating systems in place for work or access to databases with resulting pressures to perform. Work in such circumstances is often required to be carried out at very short notice; the associated pressure to meet tight deadlines may lead to work intensification.

In terms of health risks, like any jobs that require long periods of sitting, there is a risk that online work can exacerbate the health aspects of increasingly sedentary lifestyles (lack of exercise, etc.). Technology or “screen” addiction is also becoming a recognized condition. From the ergonomic perspective, prolonged use of electronic screen devices in a fixed posture can cause or exacerbate musculoskeletal symptoms. The long-term impacts of such types of work are still largely unknown, but our sedentary “sitting” lifestyle is often referred to as “the new smoking.”

 

Big Data & the Internet of Things

Data and devices are everywhere these days. Their proliferation will only increase in the coming years. This is backed up by some predictions from a recent report published by Cisco[1]:

  • Traffic from wireless and mobile devices will account for more than 63 percent of total IP traffic by 2021. In 2016, wired devices accounted for the majority of IP traffic at 51 percent.
  • Global internet traffic in 2021 will be equivalent to 127 times the volume of the entire global internet in 2005. Globally, internet traffic will reach 30 GB per capita by 2021, up from 10 GB per capita in 2016.

The use of data and devices can have many benefits for EHS issues. For example, the application of real-time monitoring and feedback from sensors can lead to reduced workplace risks. The predictive analytics that can be employed through big data analysis can help predict when accidents or incidents are likely to occur or when maintenance is required on a particular piece of equipment. Remote controlled devices and sensors can also result in risky tasks being taken out of human hands, thereby eliminating the risk of harm altogether.

Global internet traffic in 2021 will be equivalent to 127 times the volume of the entire global internet in 2005.

However, there are also potential negative impacts. For example, the more devices and the more data required can lead to the increasing complexity and interdependency of daily tasks. Corporate data hunger and constant alerts and notifications from devices can lead to distractions from the actual, physical work to be carried out. Too much responsibility for their own safety could be taken away from workers. There are also security risks; all these devices there are an increased number of digital entry points at risk from cyber attacks. Employees might also feel they are being “watched” all the time and this loss of privacy could lead to insecurity, stress and anxiety at work.

From the environmental perspective, the energy required to power IoT devices and the many huge datacenters that handle these mind-blowing amounts of bytes of data is an obvious issue—closely tied to climate change and our current over-reliance on fossil fuels. All of this energy also produces a lot of heat; this requires cooling systems. On a positive note, there are already examples of datacenters being located in arctic environments to make them less reliant on artificial cooling.

The Earth also has limited resources when it comes to metals (and particularly rare earth metals) which are often used in the production of devices. This means the link with drives to push for a more “circular economy” (and regulation and policy around that) are clear.

 

Artificial Intelligence & Automation

Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Automation will result in many complex tasks being taken out of the hands of humans. The immense potential of such technologies is clear. However, there remains uncertainty and controversy over the long-term implications.

On a positive note, the increase in automation and control of systems and processes will reduce workplace risks and the potential for human error. There will be improved occupational health and safety ‘intelligence’ around things like predictive maintenance. AI could also be used to gain a greater understanding of occupational health and disease.

However, do we risk placing too much reliance on AI? Will human workers lose their practical skills and experience and their ability to ‘read’ certain situations? It is also an established fact that any machinery or AI system (and the decision-making process they employ) will always have been programmed by humans, so can they ever be faultless?

Companies may have to start paying closer attention to the welfare of their employees and put in place codes of conduct.

One of the biggest implications of AI and the automation (and potential obsolescence) of jobs that are currently carried out by humans, is that it will fundamentally change how society considers “work” and what that work will be. A number of industrial sectors are undergoing automation at once. How many jobs will there be for humans to carry out? What will the quality of those jobs be? This transition to automation could lead to an intensification of workplace risks: How reliant will we be on safety control systems for robots? How effective will those systems be? How can robots be integrated alongside humans without negatively affecting health? How will risk assessments be carried out for robot work activities?

 

EHS Regulatory and Policy Issues

All of the aforementioned issues can bring positive and negative implications to our workplace and the environment. As mentioned, it is enlightening that the HSE in the UK has an entire department devoted to looking at future workplace trends already[2]. Similar initiatives are taking place elsewhere too, with a recent example in New Jersey, where the Governor is creating a task force to assess how technology will affect the workplace in the near and distant future[3].

So, law and policy makers are starting to look at these issues already. But what kind of specific issues are likely to be regulated more in the future?

We came up with a few, based on actual developments, but also some speculation!

Occupational Health & Safety Issues

Ergonomics / Musculoskeletal disorders

  • Ergonomics is currently rarely regulated directly, but rather is part of general workplace requirements. We could see more specific rule-based regulations, including for remote workers.
  • Will there be improvements to policy and regulation about health, well-being, and exercise? (e.g., standing desks, walking breaks, regulation of hours spent sitting)

Mental Health/Stress

  • There are signs that these types of issue are already being looked at. For example, in Belgium, a new online tool has been launched to help employers diagnose employees who may be experiencing burnout and obtain advice on how to deal with the problem. With more and more employers in Europe encountering cases of workplace stress, we can expect to see this approach adopted in other jurisdictions.   
  • Another method that has gained support for combatting workplace stress is the so-called ‘right to disconnect,’ which we have seen implemented in France. Belgium has recently introduced what could be described, or at least I’m going to describe it as, a ‘right to disconnect minus.’ This doesn’t go as far as the measures in France; however, it places a requirement on employers and employees to reach binding agreements on times when employees cannot be disturbed. This is another approach that we could see adopted elsewhere to try and tackle the workplace stress problem.
  • As awareness of all these issues increases, companies may have to start paying closer attention to the welfare of their employees and put in place codes of conduct. They may also need to provide training to managers on preventing harassment and spotting the signs of stress.
  • Will we see laws limiting screen exposure/working time?
  • Will legal obligations to carry out mental health assessments be introduced?
  • It is likely that mental health will increasingly be classified as an occupational disease.

Machinery Safety (Robots)

  • This is already happening. For example, in Japan under the five-year safety and health plan published for 2018-2022, a particular emphasis has been placed on industrial robots and machine use. The plan encourages companies to take a dual corporate level and facility-level approach to safety and health management and address prominent issues such as workplace fatalities, overworked employees and supporting chronically-ill workers. In Korea, another recent amendment requires companies that install a conveyor or industrial robot to carry out an initial safety inspection within three years of the installation, and periodic inspections every two years after the initial inspection. As we see more automation of processes in industry globally, this is a trend we predict to see elsewhere as well.
  • Could it be that in the future we actually see rules to prevent humans from performing particularly hazardous tasks (e.g. work in confined spaces)?
  • Will safety regulations for wearables technologies be developed (e.g., how many you can be required to wear and in what circumstances)?

Data Collection & Privacy

  • There are already a number of moves to protect the online privacy of individuals in general. General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) is the obvious example. However, it could be that further regulation and restriction in this regard will have some impact on things like automated data collection from wearable equipment in the future.

Remote Workers & Non-Contracted Workers

  • We may see greater guarantees of the rights of remote or non-contracted workers to work safely and without prejudice to their health.
  • There may be legal clarification of responsibilities when it comes to EHS,  making it clear who is responsible for someone’s working conditions.
  • Is it possible that we will see more obligations to have certain qualifications to perform certain types of work?
  • Could we even see obligations for remote workers to wear ergonomic assessment technology?

Driver Safety

  • It seems inevitable that more regulation around driverless vehicles will be required. The introduction of such vehicles alongside human-operated vehicles could be a potentially tumultuous transition. Could it be foreseeable that at some point in the future humans could be banned from driving? Driving is after all a major occupational hazard, globally.

Environmental Issues

  • Many issues around climate change (air emissions, energy efficiency, etc.) are already on the regulator’s table. The issue is likely to be a long-term one, so we will continue to see regulation and policy centered on this; it is likely that this will seek to focus on Industry 4.0 developments. For example:
    • We may see more incentives (tax rebates, subsidies) or even obligations to purchase renewable energy.
    • Some countries are already announcing that they will ban the sale of new diesel vehicles in the coming years. Some manufacturers are already committing to only producing electric- or hybrid-powered vehicles. This may spread. Might we even see obligations to buy electric vehicles at some point?
    • Similarly, will we see future restrictions on the use of fossil-fuel energy and obligations to purchase renewable energy?
    • We are also likely to see more and more measures to increase the energy efficiency of industrial processes amd products.
    • The circular economy is already the hottest regulatory topic at the European Union level, and what we see start there, (cf. REACH, WEEE, RoHS) often has a copycat effect on regulators elsewhere around the world.

Enforcement

We must also remember that with all this new technology there will be an increased amount of data for regulators to scrutinize. There will also be more innovative means of investigating (through drone inspections or obligatory data submissions, for example). This, coupled with the fact that our world is more connected every day, could also mean that the very means by which EHS laws is enforced could also see a fundamental change. This may have just as much of an impact as the laws themselves.

 

Conclusion

In this article, we have only really scratched the surface on what the future may hold. Change is happening so quickly that despite efforts to predict the future, regulators will always be somewhat lagging behind industrial initiatives. What is clear is that Industry 4.0 will likely require EHS Regulation 4.0.