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Päivi Mattila-Wiro and Wiking Husberg: Technostress and personal data protection risks — new challenges for occupational safety and health

Ministry of Social Affairs and Health 12.10.2020 18.14
Column

Work may not compromise the health and safety of employees. There is no ambiguity in this respect. However, it is a challenging objective to reach in a rapidly changing world of work.

Health and safety risks arise from new forms of work, new technologies, new digital solutions and green jobs. New technologies are evolving at such a rapid pace that it might stretch our biological limits leading to serious health and safety consequences at work.

In addition to all emerging risks, we have to deal with the old and still existing occupational safety and health risks.

Working life is changing — how is occupational safety and health changing?

When discussing the transformation of work and working life, it is also necessary to address the issue of occupational safety and health. Absence from work and occupational accidents are costly.  The changes that are now taking place require that occupational safety and health and labour inspection be reformed and updated.

For example, new forms of work, such as the platform economy, make it more difficult for labour inspectors to reach employees, not to mention those who are responsible for the health and safety of workers.

In the platform economy, it is not always possible to determine who the employer is and who is responsible for ensuring occupational safety and health, for example at clients’ home or when employees are working remotely.

Responsibility for risks assessment is shifting to the employee in a world of remote work

The pandemic has shown that the shift from working in an office to working from home can at its worst lead to ways of working that are not ergonomic, isolation from the work community, lack of guidance from the supervisor and long working hours. The boundaries between work and private life can become blurred. Stress at work and insufficient free time to recover increase the risk of falling ill.

Many employers and labour inspectors have been surprised by the exponential and widespread increase in remote work during the pandemic. It is fairly difficult to address issues related to working conditions and the work environment when people work from home. It is not possible to go to employees home to check the working conditions without a well-founded reason. In this new situation, employees themselves must take responsibility for a healthy and safe work environment.

Employees could, in fact, be responsible for self-management and risk assessment, although under the law, the main responsibility for this rests with the employer.

Risks related to robotics still partly unknown

Working together with robots (cobots) at close range and smart wearable (like exoskeletons) raise a number of safety issues. If, for some reason, a cobot malfunctions or misreads a human worker, there is a risk of collision or even injury.

However, working with a robot is more likely to cause stress than anything else. Working alone with robots who possess both physical strength and emotional intelligence can be challenging  for employees. Employees may also experience pressure when trying to perform their work equally efficiently with robots.  

The impact of robotics on psychosocial factors at workplaces still remains an unknown area. Smart wearables entail their own risks associated with physical strain and stress.

Data on workers may also be misused

Remote work and the platform economy have also brought about new ways and programmes to monitor the performance of work. Some of the new programmes collect a lot of versatile data. Clients often also have the opportunity to appraise both the performance of workers and their own satisfaction with the performance in multiple different ways.

It is important to ensure that all this data is only collected and used within the limits set by law and for the purpose of improving the quality and efficiency of work, for example. Employees must also be protected against the unlawful collection and use of data related to the privacy of the person.

Principles of occupational safety and health must be followed

The transformation of work and working life brings a lot of positive changes and new opportunities. There are, however, great challenges with this transformation.  

The situation requires that occupational safety and health and labour inspection be redirected and provided with sufficient resources. What is needed, for example, is more cooperation with designers of artificial intelligence, robotics and smart wearables to ensure that safety and health risks are addressed at the design stage. This, in turn, calls for more occupational safety and health experts and labour inspectors who are specialised in artificial intelligence and digitalisation.

The principles of occupational safety and health — accident prevention, work ability and wellbeing at work — must be followed at workplaces.  All employees must also start paying more attention to the safety of their own work. Nevertheless, occupational safety and health professionals must be able to assess any mental stress experienced by employees more widely than before.

High-quality occupational safety and health and wellbeing at work become a competitive asset for workplaces. Many studies show that investments in occupational safety, health and wellbeing at work pay off. The Finnish Government’s objective to increase employment requires that people stay healthy at work.

Päivi Mattila-Wiro        
Ministerial Adviser
Ministry of Social Affairs and Health

Wiking Husberg
Consultant on Occupational Safety and Health

The column is based on the recently published Nordic report entitled