EHS Management, Special Topics in Safety Management

What Safety Challenges Does the Future of Work Hold?

Before the World Health Organization declared a coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic on March 11, workplace safety and health professionals already were looking at a future that included new technologies, nontraditional work arrangements, an aging and multigenerational workforce, impairment brought on by medical or recreational cannabis use, and workplace suicides and opioid overdoses.

Future of safety work

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The COVID-19 pandemic has added new concerns and responsibilities for workplace safety and health professionals. Recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for office environments include significant engineering and administrative changes ranging from repositioning workstations or installing plastic partitions to making major changes to heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems. Recommendations for meat and poultry processing are similarly disruptive.

COVID-19 is a respiratory illness caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. COVID-19 currently is widespread in most U.S. communities and considered a workplace hazard. Recommendations for managing an ongoing pandemic may be in place indefinitely.

If researchers cannot find effective treatments or offer a viable vaccine, pandemic measures may need to stay in place for a while. The future of work for safety and health professionals also includes new technologies like artificial intelligence (AI), sensors, drones, and the “Internet of Things.”

Current Tech, Future Tech

Sensors could be developed to detect workers’ exposures to biological, chemical, physical, and radiological hazards. The AIHA (formerly, the American Industrial Hygiene Association) has advocated for increases in government funding for the research and development of sensors and “big data.”

Data, including data from sensors, could produce knowledge and insights that safety and health managers can use to better protect workers, according to the AIHA. But methods of standardizing and interpreting data and retraining environment, health, and safety (EHS) professionals in data analytics are needed before “big data” becomes another tool in the safety manager’s toolbox.

The Future of Work initiative at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is examining a broad spectrum of subtopics under work, workforce, and workplace issues.

Work issues include the use of AI and machine learning; technologies like nanotechnology and advanced materials, sensors, and 3-D printing; and human-machine interactions and robotic exoskeletons.

The workforce issues include diversity and a multigenerational workforce, economic security, and a need for lifelong learning. Workplace issues include organizational design, technological job displacement, and work arrangements.

Older, Multigenerational Workforce

For the first time ever, safety professionals must protect a workforce that includes five generations: the “silent” generation (born between 1928 and 1945), the Baby Boomer generation (born 1946 to 1964), Generation X (born 1965 to 1980), Millennials (born 1981 to 1996), and Generation Z or Post-Millennial Generation (born 1997 to the early 2010s). On the positive side, a multigenerational workforce enables a transfer of expertise across generations. With declining birth rates and fewer replacement workers, employers will need to retain and protect older workers.

Older workers also have a reputation for lower rates of absenteeism and turnover and are injured less frequently, but when they do become sick or injured on the job, their illnesses and injuries can be more severe.

One in every 5 American workers is now over 65, and 1 in 4 American workers will be over 55, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Employment of workers aged 65 or older has grown by 117% in a span of 20 years, according to the BLS, and employment of individuals 75 years or older has increased by the same rate.

As the workforce ages, safety and health professionals also need greater knowledge about workers’ chronic health conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, obesity, cancer, depression and suicide, and substance abuse. Some conditions may make workers more prone to accident or injury, while others can exacerbate the effects of workplace exposures.

Older farmer or farm worker with a tractor

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NIOSH’s National Center for Productive Aging and Work (NCPAW) researches and promotes the lifelong well-being of older workers and the concept of productive aging. The institute’s director of Total Worker Health, L. Casey Chosewood, MD, MPH, suggested in a recent NIOSH webinar that interventions for older workers improve working conditions for all workers.

Some professionals may need to adopt NIOSH’s Total Worker Health approach, taking responsibility for wellness and health promotion, as well as workplace safety and health.

Earlier this year, U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams called attention to NIOSH’s Total Worker Health work in a medical journal editorial. Adams suggested that conditions affecting worker well-being are within employers’ control, such as job demands and pressures, the degree of workers’ autonomy and flexibility, the quality of interactions with supervisors and coworkers, the frequency of shiftwork, and the length of the workday.

The AIHA has called on Congress to double funding for NIOSH’s Total Worker Health Program. There is a gap in EHS professional knowledge about the interaction between workers’ occupational and nonoccupational exposures. Information collected from sensors, data analysis, and other technologies could give researchers and managers a better sense of workers’ total exposures—both on and off the job.

Having developed the Total Worker Health approach, NIOSH also is helping professionals implement it. NIOSH’s Total Worker Health Workforce Development (WFD) Program, established in 2015, now has created an educational framework that includes a standardized core curriculum and an educational approach for traditional occupational safety and health professionals, as well as key nonsafety and health professionals and intermediaries.

Six broad areas of Total Worker Health competencies include subject matter expertise; advocacy and engagement; program planning, implementation, and evaluation; communications and dissemination; leadership and management; and partnership building and coordination.

A Total Worker Health alliance in Oregon began teaching a Total Worker Health curriculum at events in 2018 and 2019 and had planned to continue the curriculum in 2020 before the pandemic.

The curriculum includes a 3-hour prerequisite class, “Total Worker Health 101: The Basics,” and additional modules on “Workplace Solutions” and “Fatigue and Sleep.” The Oregon Total Worker Health alliance includes the Oregon Healthy Workforce Center at Oregon Health and Science University, a NIOSH-funded Center of Excellence for Total Worker Health, Oregon Occupational Safety and Health (OR-OSHA), and SAIF Corporation (Oregon’s not-for-profit workers’ compensation insurance company).

NIOSH also recently completed a National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA) for Healthy Work Design and Well-Being. The NORA for Health Work Design (HWD) includes seven objectives:

  • Identifying and examining the impact of worker demographics (including age) on employer or organizational practices and worker safety, health, and well-being;
  • Improving the safety, health, and well-being of workers with nonstandard work arrangements;
  • Addressing the safety and health implications of advancing technology;
  • Reducing work organization-related chronic health conditions among workers;
  • Decreasing the burden of shiftwork, long hours of work, and sleep deficiency;
  • Improving the safety, health, and well-being of workers through a healthier work design and better organizational practices; and
  • Promoting a sustainable work-nonwork interface.

Safety and health professionals have a growing responsibility for workers who are not traditional employees, including contingent and subcontract employees and “gig” workers. Workers also may hold multiple ongoing or temporary positions with poorly identified workplace exposures in addition to nonoccupational exposures.

Researchers need to collect more thorough data on work arrangements, including information on arrangements in multiple jobs held simultaneously and associated adverse health outcomes. They also need to develop and disseminate best practice safety managers to address the occupational safety and health of workers in nonstandard work arrangements.

The AIHA is especially concerned with temporary and contract workers placed in hazardous jobs without adequate safety and health training. One potential solution: Occupational safety and health in schools could help protect young workers, as well as those in nontraditional work arrangements. The group would like to see state and local governments require a workplace safety curriculum in schools for grades 7 through 12. The AIHA has applied for federal and state grants for teacher training in teen workplace safety.

Current Cannabis, Opioid, Suicide Concerns

As more states enact medical and recreational cannabis-use laws, a growing number of employers are concerned with worker impairment, according to surveys conducted by the National Safety Council (NSC). Most employers support performing tests for marijuana use, even in states that recognize medical or recreational use.

The AIHA supports the voluntary prohibition of marijuana use by workers in safety-sensitive positions, along with routine drug testing until impairment is better understood. There is no well-established dose-response measure for marijuana use and worker impairment.

Workers’ use and abuse of opioids especially concerns employers in industries with high injury rates. Some states have removed opioids from their workers’ compensation formularies, but some workers may already be addicted. The BLS reported that the number of fatal on-the-job overdoses has increased by at least 25% for 5 straight years. In fact, drug and alcohol overdoses accounted for 5.3% of all fatal workplace injuries in 2017.

Workplace suicide also remains a concerning trend. Workplace suicides reached an all-time high of 291 in 2016. Analysis from the BLS found that workplace suicides occur most frequently among whites, men, and 35- to 44-year-olds. The top occupational groups for workplace suicide are construction and oil and gas extraction.

Anxiety, depression

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The American Society of Safety Professionals (ASSP) described construction work as the “perfect storm” of risk factors for suicide—a workforce of predominantly white, middle-aged males who have the highest rate of suicide among the general population. Many were between ages 45 and 64, the age cohort with the highest suicide rate in the United States and a work culture that discourages discussions of mental health.

Changing Profession

The safety and health profession itself is changing. The AIHA anticipates a shortage of trained safety professionals as current professionals retire, widening the gap between the number of safety and health vacancies and the number of professionals who can fill them.

The BLS predicts a growing need for safety professionals in the construction industry as commercial and residential construction and infrastructure projects fuel industry growth.

The BLS predicts job growth for health and safety engineers, occupational safety and health specialists, and occupational safety and health technicians. Professional associations like the AIHA, ASSP, and NSC also are actively promoting growth in diversity in their ranks. Professional groups are trying to develop a safety and health workforce that more closely reflects the overall U.S. labor pool. ASSP already has Blacks in Safety Excellence, Hispanic Safety Professionals, and Women in Safety Excellence (WISE) interest groups.

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