Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) became a profession around the mid-1900s, and has been the subject of satire and frustration ever since. OHS saves millions of lives, but as we see more and more workplace tasks automated, will health and safety ever die?
Many things threaten Health and Safety – deregulation, public opinion, corporate greed – but the most likely meteor for health and safety at work is artificial intelligence (AI).
AI, along with automation and robotics, is now on everyone's peripheries. We wrote about it in 2016, and since then, the topic exploded in the world of OHS. Importantly, practitioners now wonder: is AI friend or foe?
In simple terms, AI affects:
- Carrying out manual work (labor)
- Monitoring employee health and safety
- Making management decisions
These days, AI conducts numerous workplace tasks. It’s changing up warehouses, construction sites and facilities worldwide as technology becomes more accessible and advanced.
Other factors that may cause OHS to “die” are not nearly as likely. Health and Safety is deeply embedded into Western culture and will not disappear quickly. The practice has withstood decades of belittlement whilst delivering worthwhile results.
The OHS department is sometimes slow to adapt, but one where the effects of AI are already obvious. The ramifications are worth understanding, so let’s take a look.
Health and safety managers will be more affected by labor automation
The very definition of health and safety at work is to prevent worker injuries. However, what if there are no workers to protect?
When you run Laborers and Freight, Stock, and Material Movers through WRTMJ, probability of automation increases to 85%.
Will Robots Take My Job? 🤖
Occupational Health and Safety Specialist: 17% - No worries
Occupational Health and Safety Technician: 25% - Start worrying
Laborers and Freight, Stock, and Material Movers: 85% - Robots are watching
Welding, Soldering, and Brazing Machine Operators: 61% - Robots are watching
Rotary Drill Operators, Oil and Gas: 53% - Robots are watching
Aircraft Structure, Surfaces, Rigging, and Assemblers: 79% - Robots are watching
Analysis firm Oxford Economics believes that up to 20 million manufacturing jobs could be lost to robots by 2030. With such a loss of people, the health and safety department's role changes dramatically.
This automation of labor is likely to be of more significance to health and safety managers than automation of their own day to day tasks.
A note on definitions: Robots, artificial intelligence and automation are not the same thing. A robot is a machine that completes physical tasks. AI is computer software mimicking human intelligence, i.e. a human’s ability to learn. AI can control a robot to automate a task.
Is automation really a threat?
Health and Safety professionals are already experiencing a shift towards automation in the workplace.
Between 2011 and 2016, the United States saw a 40% increase in the use of industry robots (excluding Automotive). We’ve found no direct correlation, but in the same period, nonfatal injury and illness rates fell from 3.4 to 2.9 per 100 FTEs. That's a 15% decrease.
Regardless, automation protects workers: typically, robots carry out dull, dirty and dangerous jobs, keeping workers out of harm’s way. For example, a robot can perform the repetitive action of processing poultry, an exercise causing humans to develop musculoskeletal disorders.
Furthermore, robots minimize human error. Robots don’t get sick, and robots don’t quit—clear benefits for the employer. On the other hand, this is what encourages the threat of worker replacement.
Technology already in use for safety
Current examples of AI in occupational health and safety include industrial wearables and the Internet of Things (IoT).
A 2018 report from independent research firm Verdantix found that 58% of EHS leaders regard industrial wearables as significant in their operational risk management activities.
These technologies, such as smartwatches, can:
- Track worker location for timelier injury and evacuation response
- Oversee vital signs and environmental risks such as heat stress
- Mitigate risks by issuing information alerts remotely
Industrial wearables enhance manual labor jobs not already replaced by automation.
The American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) is working on standards for exoskeletons and exosuits. These wearable robots help reduce the physical burden on an employee to reduce risk of injury (Iron Man, anyone?). Such ergonomic enhancements significantly affect the health and safety specialist's role and the data they manage.
Don’t forget the humans
How does this add up to the demise of health and safety?
Well, as robots are so safe, so efficient and error-proof, when they become cheaper than humans, that spells workforce decline. As a result, there's less human-related risk to be managed, and less people to get hurt.
Artificial intelligence is also likely to, at some point, make decisions about how to improve health and safety much like the VP of EHS does.
This theory makes it easy to wallow in worry about artificial intelligence taking jobs—the ones we manage and those we hold ourselves.
However, there are other things to remember:
- Humans will almost always be the consumer
- Some level of human interaction is required during the supply chain, which must be made safe.
- If something can go wrong, it will go wrong (Murphy’s law)
- Mistakes happen, and a human must represent the incident response (to the human consumer audience that still prefer human interaction).
- Health and safety management is adaptable
- We’ve seen this demonstrated in the recent adoption of employee mental health as one of its responsibilities. Until zero humans operate a company, mental health support will be required for consumers, developers, or directors.
- As with several HR rebrands to People e.g. VP of People Operations, health and safety could withstand a makeover. VP of Human Wellbeing? VP of Robot Safety? (Bit weird.)
- It would be counterproductive to become a completely safe company and then dissolve the safety department
Perhaps that’s why the probability of automation to the Occupational Health and Safety Specialist’s role is so low.
It is yet to be seen how far the wave of AI will extend. Some predictions from three years ago haven’t come to pass: consumer cars are still not capable of fully autonomous driving in 2019, and even if they were, it’s unlikely most people would trust the technology until it is 100% safe 100% of the time. Trust is a top challenge for AI advancement.
All things considered, we predict that health and safety will not die because of AI, at least in the lifetime of everyone alive today.
(And anyway, even if robots and AI were to take over the world, driving humans to extinction, they’d still need a piece of software to detect and investigate when something got ill or injured whilst doing its job. Perhaps… like… a ~virus~.)
Bonus: Other things that won’t kill health and safety
- Climate change
- Being made fun of
- Corporate greed
Long live Health and Safety!
Thoughts provoked? Let our readers know by leaving a comment.
Keep reading: 5 Ways AI Increases Workplace Safety and Productivity