News


27/06/2024

Integrating artificial intelligence at work: automation of tasks

Image
Illustration of a woman wearing a helmet standing in front of a machine automating tasks at work.

© EU-OSHA

While traditional industrial robots have been present in factories since the 1950s, the integration of ( ) and modern robotic systems has increased in EU workplaces during the last decade. This trend of task is set to expand further in the coming years. This article offers an overview of AI’s functions and operations in task automation, which is the new priority area of the Healthy Workplaces ‘Safe and healthy work in the digital age’ Campaign, highlighting its implications for occupational safety and health (OSH).

What is automation of tasks?
Automation of tasks is the use of AI-based robotic systems to perform tasks in the workplace previously performed by humans, which are usually repetitive, dirty or dangerous. It could be considered that each job consists of several tasks that must be executed, so when referring to automation, advanced or AI-based systems are used to automate some of those tasks and do not replace humans by automating jobs.

Such systems can be found across various sectors, for instance in manufacturing, healthcare, transportation and storage. According to OSH Pulse survey 2022, 5% of workers in the EU use machines or robots that incorporate AI at work and 3% use robots that interact with them.

AI-based systems and may create opportunities for OSH, such as keeping workers out of dangerous situations while allowing them to perform more stimulating and creative work or a reduction in physical workload. They may also bring risks and challenges to workers, for instance a fear of job loss and associated psychosocial risks, overreliance, need for or loss of skills. Upcoming articles will further explore these topics.

Automating different types of tasks
The tasks automated can be physical and cognitive. On the physical side, routine tasks are automated based on AI. The most common sectors concerned are manufacturing, human health and social work, transportation and construction. This is, for example, when robots are lifting patients in healthcare and when they help cleaning, packaging or painting in manufacturing. Self-driving vehicles are also used in transportation and storage or to load containers, and robots to inspect buildings in the construction sector or drones to inspect installations. These technologies also allow to prevent obstacles and collisions.

AI-based systems may also perform cognitive tasks. The most common sectors concerned with current and potential automation indeed include human health and social work, but also education and professional, scientific and technical activities. Concretely, these may take the shape of teaching assistance in education, systems supporting diagnostic decisions in the human health sector, in finance, translation services or social robots in administrative and support services.

Besides, AI-based systems capable of handling both physical and cognitive tasks are already in use. As technology advances, we can anticipate even more sophisticated systems that seamlessly blend these capabilities.

Ensuring OSH in automated workplaces
Human-centred design plays a pivotal role in creating automated workplaces that prioritise worker wellbeing. This involves carefully selecting tasks for automation, providing proper training and continuous for workers, as well as fostering information transparency and worker involvement. It will contribute to empowering workers to interact safely and effectively with automated systems, while promoting a supportive environment. Legislative frameworks like the Machinery Regulation (EU) 2023/1230 and the EU AI Act provide foundational guidelines, yet coordinated efforts among labour inspection, social partners and decision makers are crucial for implementing and enforcing comprehensive OSH standards across all levels.

Raising awareness about the implications of task automation on workers’ occupational safety and health is paramount. EU-OSHA’s Healthy Workplaces Campaign’s focus on this new priority area will shed light on the topic. Through the dissemination of resources and information over the coming months, the campaign aims to empower stakeholders with the knowledge and tools needed to ensure safe and healthy workplaces in a context of advancing technologies.