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Martin Cottam


The Many Challenges in Achieving a Safer, Healthier World of Work

Keeping up with industry demands while protecting workers

Published: Monday, June 19, 2023 - 11:02

It’s tempting to attribute the increased profile now given to occupational health and safety (OH&S) to the Covid-19 pandemic. But while the pandemic focused a spotlight on OH&S management in many organizations, there are other issues that will keep OH&S at the fore throughout the next decade.

These include new risks associated with climate change, transformations in the world of work, such as remote/home working, a much-needed focus on mental well-being, and the flexible employment models typical in the gig economy. Alongside this sit broader trends, such as new technology and demographic change.

Changing societal expectations are also having an effect, reflected in the International Labour Organization’s declaration in 2022 that a safe and healthy working environment is a fundamental principle and right at work. OH&S is also a key component of an organization’s commitment to the social aspect of environmental, social, and governance (ESG) investment. Progress on diversity and inclusion also raises issues for OH&S management, where at times a “one size fits all” approach insufficiently addresses the individual needs of workers.

Psychological health and well-being

Although many of the immediate OH&S challenges presented by Covid-19 have now abated, a number of effects persist. Perhaps the most notable of these is workers’ increased awareness of the potential effect of work on their psychological health and well-being. With this also comes an expectation that organizations could and should do more to manage this impact —alongside the obligations they already had for workers’ physical health and safety.

This issue has been at the center of much conversation, and a variety of guidance is available. ISO 45003, for example, is an International Standard providing guidance for managing psychological risk applicable to organizations of all sizes.

It’s clear that people’s well-being can be negatively affected at work—whether by how work is organized, social factors, or aspects of the work environment. But despite evidence that effective measures can result in better mental health, job satisfaction, and productivity, it’s not clear how many organizations have yet taken such measures.

In fact, the scale of the issue is only now being fully understood. The latest World Risk Poll from the Lloyd’s Register Foundation found that violence and harassment in the workplace is endemic and persistent at a global level, with one in five people having experienced some form of violence and harassment at work in their lifetime. This is why organizations must look at their values, social structures, and the environment they provide for their workers to address these endemic risks.

Climate change

Climate change is already affecting millions of workers across the globe. The most widely publicized manifestations of climate change tend to be extreme events of heat, cold, wind, or rain, the effects of which are not limited to those working outdoors. But the effects of climate change go far beyond weather, including long-term influences on biodiversity, food, and water supplies; the resilience required of our infrastructure; and the means by which we produce our energy. The steps needed to reduce emissions and adapt our world to the changes that are already inevitable will bring new technologies, new jobs, and new ways of working, all with their own hazards and risks.

It appears that many organizations are still treating the effects of climate change as “one-off” events, with relatively few proactively considering the full range of ways in which the health and safety of their workers may be affected. More needs to be done to raise the profile of this issue with organizations. Within ISO/TC 283—the technical committee dedicated to the standardization of occupational health and safety management—we have formed a new dedicated group to focus attention on this and develop guidance to help organizations address this challenge.

ISO/TC 283—The ISO Committee on Occupational Health and Safety

New technology

From an OH&S perspective, advances in technology bring both risks and opportunities. They may also add new capabilities that help us better manage workplace health and safety. For example, where humans must interact with machines and robots whose actions evolve over time through machine learning, there may be new or increased risks. Conversely, the opportunity to deploy drones and robots in place of humans in hazardous environments will enable us to reduce risks, provided any risks arising from hacking or malfunction can be addressed.

Meanwhile, smart PPE, wearables, and other monitoring technologies provide workers with additional physical protection, which makes workers and their environment part of a real-time connected network. Virtual reality will provide new possibilities for OH&S training and capability development.

Demographic change

Workplace demographic changes will accelerate in coming years. Some countries are experiencing shrinking populations; many more are experiencing aging populations. Conversely, others, particularly in Africa, have growing and predominantly young populations. In many countries, we are likely to see more people carrying on working into old age, more female workers, and more migrant or immigrant workers who may have varying levels of competence in the local working language.

We will have a greater age range within the workforce than ever before, with more divergence in people’s learning styles, literacy levels, and ways of consuming information. From an OH&S perspective, these changes will require organizations to pay more attention to the diversity within the workforce and to people’s individual needs. For example, how can they best induct, train, develop, and communicate with such a broad range of people?

Alongside these demographic changes, we see changing attitudes to work and changing expectations of employment. The younger generation in the workforce views employment very differently from the older generation. They rarely plan to stay with one employer for a long period, and are less concerned with job security, preferring or expecting to have more varied careers. Rather, they prioritize working for organizations whose purpose and values they can positively relate to, and they have clear expectations about the way they are managed and developed.

To attract and retain talent from this younger generation, organizations will need to address these expectations while also being prepared for greater staff turnover with the associated challenges in maintaining OH&S competency and performance.

ISO’s contribution

Many of the issues and trends affecting OH&S, now and into the future, are global. International collaboration must therefore serve as the foundation of progress.

ISO is a platform and powerful mechanism for such collaboration: 73 countries are participating in the work of ISO/TC 283, and a further 26 are observing its progress with much interest. Our work is also aided by 10 international liaison bodies, including professional organizations and representatives of employers and workers alike.

This enables effective progress in the form of action. ISO/PAS 45005 is a publicly available specification giving guidelines to organizations on how to protect workers from the risks of Covid-19. It was published swiftly during the early months of the pandemic and provided a means to rapidly share recommendations and good practice. These sit alongside regulations in countries where they exist, and fill the gap in countries where regulations may be lacking.

So, while there are many long-established and respected sources of OH&S advice and guidance at the national and international level, I believe that ISO is making its own distinctive contribution through collaboration and the building of international consensus around its OH&S standards and other guidance documents.

First published April 28, 2023, on ISO.


About The Author

Martin Cottam’s picture

Martin Cottam

Martin Cottam, an engineering risk management specialist, has spent much of his career at Lloyd’s Register, one of the world’s leading providers of professional services for engineering and technology. He now provides OH&S and quality management systems consultancy covering strategy, governance, and implementation. He has contributed to the development of several OH&S management system standards, including ISO 45001, and currently chairs ISO/TC 283, occupational health and safety management.