New technology set to transform pensions and safety

| April 27, 2018

A new study from CSIRO’s Data61, produced in partnership with Safe Work Australia, argues that new technologies and modernised ways of working will introduce new challenges for work health and safety regulation and workers’ compensation in the future.  However, the study underlines that these trends will also have the potential to make work safer and reduce workplace injury over the next 2 decades.

The Workplace Safety Futures report highlights six ‘megatrends’ driven by advances in digital technologies and shifting employment patterns.

The trends comprise the widening scope of automated systems and robotics, worsening workplace stress and mental health issues, ever more time spent in front of screens, Australia’s sedentary lifestyles and consequent chronic illness, the blurring of boundaries between work and home, the growth of the casual gig and entrepreneurial economy, and the demographic reality of an ageing workforce.

Joanna Horton, research analyst at CSIRO’s Data61 and co-author of the report, notes that Australian workplaces have undergone significant structural and demographic changes along with the spread of digital technologies such as automation, artificial intelligence and augmented reality.

“This will have implications for workers’ compensation and the WHS environment in Australia and may require fresh approaches to managing risks and supporting sick or injured workers.

“The report investigates plausible future scenarios to provide policymakers and businesses with the insights they need to ensure the long-term effectiveness of Australian WHS and workers’ compensation systems, in the face of rapid change,” Horton said.

One of the six megatrends — automated systems and robotics — will present particularly important challenges and opportunities to work health and safety and workers’ compensation.

Physical workplace injury could fall by 11 per cent by 2030 as the use of robotics such as AI and drones replaces dangerous and arduous physical tasks. However, the growing use of robots in the workplace is also prompting questions about whether current ways of identifying, assessing and controlling health and safety risks will be adequate in addressing potential new risks that may arise.

The report also investigates the impact of the rising gig economy on WHS and workers’ compensation. A shift away from traditional employment patterns towards casual or freelance task-based work poses new challenges for the way safety risks are managed and how insurance can be delivered.

A significant shift towards freelance task-based work in Australia, with firms reducing their permanent staff to exploit occasional workers on a just in time basis means that fewer workers will be covered by workers’ compensation.  This may also have long-term implications on the nation’s public health and social security systems if injured workers are not covered by some form of insurance.

Safe Work Australia chair, Diane Smith-Gander said digital technologies will undoubtedly change the nature of work in the future.

“It’s important that WHS and workers’ compensation frameworks anticipate and adapt to the risks and opportunities presented by this future. Let’s use this report as an opportunity to start the conversation among safety experts and policymakers.

“Safe Work Australia is already looking at ways the findings can inform future policy development and draw attention to areas where new guidance, research and data might be needed,” Ms Smith-Gander said.