EHS Management

NIOSH Research Initiatives Ponder the Future of Work

In an effort to proactively evaluate the effect of current trends on the future of occupational safety and health, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) launched its Future of Work (FOW) initiative last year. Let’s take a closer look at the program and its resources for environment, health, and safety (EHS) professionals.

Future of work

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In a Labor Day 2019 statement addressing the need for a greater focus on emerging labor issues, the Director of NIOSH, John Howard, MD, said that “Swift and advanced innovations in technology, automation, and globalization demand a collaborative, forward-thinking approach.” To meet this challenge, NIOSH assigned several of its centers and working groups (including the Center for Occupational Robotics Research, Nanotechnology Research Center (NTRC), and National Center for Productive Aging and Work) to work both internally and in collaboration with outside partners to address issues related to the future of work.

Among the many facets of the FOW program is the Total Worker Health® (TWH) framework.

The goals of NIOSH’s FOW Initiative are to:

  1. Compile studies on the future of work;
  2. Feature current research projects related to the Initiative;
  3. Promote research among new industries, technologies, organizational designs, job arrangements, risk profiles, and ways to control risks; and
  4. Connect trends in workplace, work, and workforce changes to prepare for what the future holds for occupational safety and health.

FOW priority topics encompass three categories: Workplace, work, and workforce. Within each of these categories, three subcategories outline topics and issues of interest to EHS professionals. NIOSH also notes that “issues that impact all three categories include emergency and disaster preparedness and response, exposures and hazards, extreme weather conditions, globalization, industry 4.0, OSH 4.0, policies, politics, resources, and social disruption.”


  • Organizational design. Specific topics of interest include scheduling to prevent fatigue, ergonomic workspaces, healthy leadership (which can improve safety culture) and job flexibility.
  • Technological job displacement. Automation and digitization have great implications for the EHS field, as well as on overall productivity and quality improvement.
  • Work arrangements. Temporary and contract workers have always posed unique challenges for EHS, and will continue to do so. In the wake of COVID-19, more organizations are seeing the benefits of remote work as well, which may have great implications for the future of work.


  • Artificial intelligence (AI). Deep learning, machine learning, and neural networks all will play a role in the workplace—it remains to be seen just how this impact will take shape.
  • Smart technologies will affect everything from personal protective equipment (PPE) to the adaptation of digital EHS programs. The Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) will also affect the nature of work.
  • Robotics in the workplace can help prevent or reduce the likelihood of ergonomic injuries through wearable exoskeletons and exosuits; however, these automated machines may also introduce a variety of new hazards to the workplace.


  • The future will see an increasingly diverse workforce, necessitating a better understanding of inclusivity and the challenges posed by multigenerational organizations.
  • Economic security. Compensation, benefits, and equitable and adequate wages will affect the management of EHS departments and personnel.
  • Continual education, learning, and training will be pivotal for maintaining health and safety as well as creating an organization that can leverage the advantage of skilled employees.

The Takeaway for EHS Managers and Professionals

The mission of EHS remains steadfast. The primary objectives will always be to protect workers from illness and injury, promote good environmental stewardship and sustainability, and engage management and employees in safety all while maintaining regulatory compliance. But the opportunities and challenges revealed by each of the FOW Initiative categories will change how these objectives are met.

EHS professionals will have to be vigilant in keeping their finger on the pulse of their workplaces as new machinery and processes are adopted and new roles are created. While these new technologies and roles can have the positive impact on productivity and the overall effectiveness of an organization, it will fall to the EHS team to properly screen the evolving equipment, processes, and job functions for potential hazards as well as establish new plans for corrective and preventive action.

As technology disrupts work, EHS managers will need to be on the lookout for potential impacts to health and safety. AI and robotic automation has the potential to assist in the assessment, discovery, and correction of hazards, but these developments (and robots in particular) can also actually introduce hazards into the workplace. Changes in work can also impact the mental health and morale of employees, which EHS must also take a lead role in addressing within their organizations.

Demographics in the workforce will continue to shift, and for what is in all likelihood the first time ever, EHS professionals must protect a workforce that includes five generations, from the “silent” generation (born between 1928 and 1945) all the way through to Generation Z or Post-Millennial Generation (born 1997 to the early 2010s), with Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Millennials in between. As with all other changes, this can present both challenges and opportunities. From a positive perspective, diverse and multigenerational workforces can effectively transfer legacy knowledge across generations and promote diverse viewpoints, creating a more agile business. A potential challenge will be to create safety training programs that will effectively reach and engage all employees regardless of age, race, gender, and position or tenure within the company.

How Will You Face the Future of Work?

While no one can predict the future, it’s reasonable to expect that one thing, at least, will hold true: The only constant in the world is change, and organizations that adapt to and embrace these changes will be more likely to succeed than those that do not.

With that in mind, EHS professionals must not allow themselves to slip into the trap of believing that their field should be performed with a “business as usual” mindset. Stay alert and open to new developments, employ tools that can help you streamline and improve your EHS processes, and face the future of work with positive anticipation.

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