The health and safety industry is constantly adapting and changing. As we move into the first year of a new decade, several trends are taking shape in the HSE industry that will impact workers, safety professionals, and organisations as a whole.
Silicosis – a nationwide epidemic
Alarmingly, the number of silicosis cases is on the rise in Australia. In 2020 and beyond, organisations that work with silica-containing substances will face stricter silica controls and will be conducting more stringent employee health checks. Not only this, but many organisations will likely have to face the consequences of past workplace controls. Last year, Law firm Slater and Gordon announced it was preparing a national class action against the manufacturers of popular kitchen stone bench-tops after the products led to thousands of stonemasons contracting silicosis.
Silicosis is an aggressive form of pneumoconiosis, a debilitating respiratory disease, which is often fatal. The progressive and irreversible disease is contracted when tiny particles of silica dust are breathed in and settles in the lungs. The Cancer Council says approximately 587,000 Australian workers were exposed to silica dust while on the job in 2011 alone. Of these, 5,758 are estimated to develop lung cancer in the future as a result of that exposure. Dr Graeme Edwards, a Brisbane physician who has tested hundreds of stone workers for silicosis, predicts the health crisis will become worse than asbestosis.
“We’re talking about a major epidemic that we don’t fully appreciate right now – it’s absolutely in a league of its own.”
ISO 45001 adoption
ISO 45001 will continue to be adopted globally, ultimately requiring an organisation’s management and leadership to take greater responsibility for health and safety issues. Company-wide engagement is another key benefit of ISO 45001, and as more and more businesses become certified, we should see a greater emphasis on employees actively participating in the development, planning, implementation and continual improvement of the OH&S management system.
Tens of thousands of businesses around the globe are already certified to the new international standard, and it is expected that over 500,000 organisations will take it up over the next decade. In 2018, Australian businesses were warned that existing safety standards would be phased out and that they would be given a three-year transition period to move from AS/NZS 4801 to AS/NZS 45001.
Safety Differently is the name given to a movement within the safety industry that challenges organisations to view three key areas of their business differently – how safety is defined, the role of people, and the focus of the business. First coined in 2012 by Griffith University professor and best-selling author Sidney Dekker, the movement has continued to gain traction and will grow even further in 2020. This movement will lead many organisations to abandon the traditional safety values of compliance and control for simpler processes that value competency and common sense.
More organisations will begin to grow safety initiatives from the bottom, up – rather than impose them from the top, down. This means harnessing workers’ skills and competencies, cultivating positive workplace conditions, and relying less on lag indicators.
The technological advancements that makeup ‘Industry 4.0’ – artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things, big data, machine learning, robotics – represent a paradigm shift that will leave no industry untouched. These technologies, which become more accessible and advanced year on year, will fundamentally change the work is done, carrying both risks and opportunities for OHS. A lot of these technologies have the potential to remove humans from harm’s way, but can also represent an entirely new approach to production.
Organisations embracing these technologies in 2020 will face considerable OHS-related challenges, especially in the transitional period in regards to standards and regulations. Laws and regulations often lag behind technological innovation, so it is vital that organisations are not waiting around for regulatory clarity before acting on inevitable OHS risks.
The introduction of industrial manslaughter laws in Queensland in 2017 started a conversation that has reverberated around Australia. Since then, the Victorian Government has introduced a new workplace industrial manslaughter law to Parliament with penalties of $16 million and up to 20 years jail for employers responsible for negligently causing death. Western Australia also introduced a long-awaited mirror WHS Bill which includes an industrial manslaughter offence. And the Northern Territory has introduced an Amendment Bill that creates a WHS offence of industrial manslaughter, including a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
And states that are yet to explicitly introduce the offence are under increasing pressure to do so – the Boland Model WHS Laws Review recommended in favour of the introduction of industrial manslaughter as part of Australia’s harmonised WHS Laws. So it seems that despite industry backlash and controversy over whether the laws are fit for purpose as the solution for the problem they are said to solve, industrial manslaughter is a reality with which industry must now grapple.
Rectification works on buildings with high-risk cladding will continue throughout 2020, and fresh regulations should emerge. Governments across Australia are currently grappling with updated regulations for future construction and also the coordination (and funding) of remedial works to ensure that existing buildings do not pose an unacceptable risk to safety.
The Federal Government is firmly maintaining the position that building regulation is an issue that falls squarely within the remit of individual State Governments. As a consequence, a varied approach has been adopted across the country. Moving forward, expect more state pressure on the construction industry to meet safety requirements regarding building material use, as well as more public transparency when a home or workplace doesn’t pass the test.
Advances IoT and AI, in particular, have the potential to produce huge swarms of valuable data. Rather than shy away from it, people in the health and safety industry should embrace what data can bring to their professions and roles. Influxes of new data will come with a range of new actionable insights for OHS professionals with the skills to identify them.
For example, advances in AI technology will improve a system’s ability to flag health and safety-related anomalies ahead of time. Despite this, a machine-learning model is only half the picture, and problem-solving and human intervention will still be required. The data needs to be analysed before it has real value. OHS professionals are still best positioned to interpret this data, formulate the best controlling strategy, and sell it to management. However, in a world where companies handle increasingly large amounts of data, it’s vital that sensitive company information remains secure and risk management processes are extended to data security.
A focus on total health
Traditionally, the safety industry was focused on keeping workers safe from risks while on the job. And that’s where the obligation ended. These days, businesses are seeing the benefits of supporting the overall health and wellbeing of workers – both on the job and at home. Employers are now expected to take better care of their workers. This means adopting holistic programs that take into consideration physical, mental, social and financial health.
The business case for wellbeing initiatives is also becoming impossible to ignore. Recent research from Deloitte Canada found companies that implement robust mental health programs see a significant return on investment within three years. Programs in place for one year had a median annual ROI of $1.62 for every dollar invested, and for companies with programs in place for three or more years, the median annual ROI was more than double – $2.18 for every dollar spent. In 2020, expect more businesses to catch on to the idea that happy and healthy employees are productive, engaged, and more likely to stay employees.
The changing nature of work
There are some who say that companies operating within the gig economy are using a “cloak of innovation” to reintroduce archaic labour practices, circumvent minimum wage rates, and remove employee safety nets. One thing is for sure – the changing nature of work, along with technological disruption, will continue to challenge workers, industries and governments for the foreseeable future. Labour markets are changing and becoming more flexible and fluid. As these disruptions continue, expect Australia’s workers’ compensation and industrial relations systems to play catch up.
Victoria took the lead on this in 2019 by amending the Owner Drivers and Forestry Contractors Act to ensure contractors are paid correctly, are safer at work, and have access to the information they need to operate successfully. This move also allows UberEats and Deliveroo couriers to access the Victorian Small Business Commission (VSBC) to help resolve their disputes. Expect more states and territories to implement similar provisions in 2020 and beyond.
Changing workplace demographics
The generational span in the modern workforce is widening. Many workers are working beyond a typical retirement age, and a large influx of young new workers means millennials now represent the largest generation in the workforce. Many businesses must contend with an incredibly diverse group of workers that are likely to think differently, learn differently, and approach safety differently.
The ‘all-round’ safety professional
The days of specialised safety roles are slowly coming to end. These days, safety professionals are expected to oversee all aspects of HSE within an organisation. For HSE professionals, a diversified and tech-savvy skillset will likely be the best defence against an evolving workplace. Plus, the ever-evolving nature of work means professionals from all industries must be prepared to be life-learners.