The health and safety risks of tomorrow

How climate change, new tech could create new workplace hazards

The health and safety risks of tomorrow

As the workplace evolves, so do workplace hazards. COS recently looked at the biggest safety disasters in Canadian history, this time we take a swing forward and look at what potential new risks may arise in the near (or distant) future.

A recent report from the International Labour Organization (ILO), Safety and Health at the Heart of the Future of Work, points out that to look at the future of safety and health at work we also need to take stock of previous developments over the last century or so.

And recent history – and even the present – very much informs what these potential future risks may look like. The pandemic has fundamentally shaken up the OHS sector with the ILO saying that “psychosocial risks, work-related stress and non-communicable diseases are of growing concern for many workers in all parts of the world.”

Aside from these concerns, what potential hazards can we soon expect to face?

1. New technologies. The rate at which new technologies are be released is simply astonishing. Writing for Forbes, Peter Swaniker – Founder and CEO at monitorQA – says “Although workplace safety, from a regulatory perspective, is often slow to change compared to advancements in operations and product innovation, companies are slowly starting to more fully embrace the Industry 4.0 mindset when it comes to workplace safety.”

Wearables, mobile apps, AI, virtual reality – there is still so much untapped potential.

So on one hand, new technologies have helped propel worker health and safety forward, but on the other hand the sheer pace at which we are confronted with new tech is a risk. The unknown always presents some form of hazard within the context of workplace safety – risks haven’t been assessed, analyzed and controlled (or eliminated). As it is inevitable that this pace will slow down, will safety professionals and employers have the time to be educated and trained in using these technologies?

Separately, for those bits of tech that track and collect data, will they perhaps pose a risk? Will the data be reliable enough to generate strong safety initiatives? The ILO also notes that collecting and recording potentially sensitive information has reduced privacy, which workers may find to be a concern (and may lead to psychosocial risks). There are definitely questions that will abound in future.

2. Climate change. As we saw during the wildfires in 2021, climate change and global warming are already starting to impact the workplace. Extreme temperatures are less than ideal to work in, and can even be life-threatening. Firm Wolters Kluwer says that it is estimated that the projected increase in global temperatures by the end of this century (around 1.5°C) will make 2 per cent of all works too hot to work by as early as 2030. This is especially dangerous for those workers in outdoor settings such as agriculture or forestry, or construction.

There are a number of serious health and safety risks associated with working in extreme heat, such as heat stroke, sunburn (with a potential for skin cancer) or even cardiovascular issues. Safety professionals are going to need to seriously think about measures that they can put in place to keep workers safe because this is a very real threat now and will only get worse.

3. An aging population. Canada has an aging population. In 2014, over 6 million Canadians were aged 65 or older – making up around 15.6 per cent of Canada’s population. By 2030, the Canadian government estimates that seniors will number over 9.5 million and make up 23 per cent of the total population.

An aging population has a direct impact on the workforce. The Fraser Institute posits that Canada will experience a declining labour force participation rate as a consequence in the coming years. It says that the rate is projected to drop from 65.7 per cent in 2019 to 60.4 per cent in 2068.

So what exactly does this mean for health and safety?

Younger workers typically experience higher injury rates than other workers, but that doesn’t mean that older workers are necessarily safer. Wolters Kluwer says in a blog post that “Some physical and cognitive capacities may start to decline in older age, as a result of natural aging processes, leading to greater risks.” It says that, for example, slips, trips and falls are more common among older workers and the resulting injuries can result in more serious injuries.

Safety professionals need to be on the lookout for these hazards, and potentially put into place age-specific programs that target age-related risks.

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