Changing course with the winds of change
- Date posted
- 02 February 2024
- Duncan Spencer CFIOSH
- Estimated reading time
- 3 minute read
Our Head of Advice and Practice, Duncan Spencer CFIOSH, looks at the implications of new technologies for occupational safety and health (OSH) professionals.
Traditionally, the OSH professional has been risk-led and evidence-driven in their approach to safety. The discipline has asserted tight control strategies to minimise variability in the workplace and the conditions employees work in. We pride ourselves in showing a logical thought train: task, hazard, reasonably foreseeable accident, and then the controls needed to reduce the likelihood of that accident occurring. It’s been our logic for 30 years or more.
But these are changing times, particularly in terms of technological development. It seems almost every week that a new, cutting-edge technology arrives – be it digital twinning, quantum computing, hyper-automation, or nanobots. (Feel free to look up their meanings!) The truth is that technological and digital revolution is not going to go away, nor is it likely to slow down.
Recently, I had a discussion with Cam Stevens, a leader in the field of OSH and technology. He made the useful point that tech developers are working on the edge of what is possible and are less likely to search for empirical evidence to prove function. Instead, they have a propensity to react and respond to trend analysis. In an industry where today’s great idea is potentially obsolete tomorrow, overcautiousness would simply slow the process of innovation down. That is not acceptable in a highly competitive marketplace. Proof of concept is found through application, accompanied by a process of troubleshooting to fix any problems that may arise. In other words, those in the tech space are developing the art of managing uncertainty.
This uncertainty may be challenging for OSH professionals when working with project teams who are developing or implementing new technologies and digital processes.
So, what are the implications we must think about as OSH professionals? For me, there are three main ones.
- We need to accept that we may not have the data to prove the proportionate control of OSH risk before full implementation. Therefore careful monitoring strategies need to be in place during the implementation phase.
- We must be more creative in considering what controls will be needed, but flexible enough to change our minds quickly after implementation. This will need closer collaboration with project teams throughout entire projects, across the design, testing, implementation, and review phases.
- And crucially, we must become much more comfortable as a profession with uncertainty and managing residual risk.
Many OSH practitioners have tended to focus on the negative potential of technology and digital transformation in the workplace, on how it may create downside risk. In contrast, the technology industry understandably sees only the huge potential for positive change. OSH professionals need to be more receptive to the benefits and have a greater openness to say yes to technological change.
Last updated: 12 February 2024
Duncan Spencer CFIOSH
- Job role
- Head of Advice and Practice