Opportunities and risks
The increasing digitalisation of the economy and the use of digital technologies in the workplace bring opportunities for workers and employers, including new opportunities for improving OSH:
- Automation relegates repetitive, labour-intensive and unsafe tasks to machines.
- Robotics and AI support and replace workers in hazardous working environments.
- Digital technologies and performance enhancing technologies (e.g. exoskeletons) improve access to the labour market for disadvantaged workers such as disabled workers, migrants or workers located in areas with scarce employment opportunities.
- Better monitoring combined with big data allow for more timely and effective interventions.
- A better work-life balance, flexibility and autonomy experienced by workers who can work from home.
Data from EU-OSHA’s 2022 OSH Pulse survey displays that digital technologies are used to monitor noise, chemicals, dust, and gases in the working environment of 19.2% of European workers, and heart rate, blood pressure, posture, and other vitals of 7.4% of workers personally.
Data from the same source also display that home-based remote workers are less likely to be exposed to violence or verbal abuse from customers, patients, pupils or to harassment or bullying: home-based teleworkers report exposure to violence or verbal abuse in only 7.9% of cases (15.7% in the total working population) as they work mostly in jobs involving reduced interaction with third parties, and to harassment or bullying in only 4.4% of cases (versus 7.3% of total population) as the social isolation (including from colleagues and superiors) can have a mitigating role in this respect. It is worth to mention that home-based remote workers are less likely to report a lack of autonomy, or influence over the work pace or work processes (14.4%) when compared to the total of workers.
There are also challenges and risks for OSH stemming from the deployment of digital technologies into the workplace:
- Digital monitoring, loss of autonomy, work intensification and pressure to perform at a certain standard.
- Middle management jobs are replaced by algorithms allocating tasks to workers and monitoring their performance.
- Loss of job control, fragmentation of jobs into very simple tasks to be executed in a standard way, narrowed job content and de-skilling of jobs.
- Isolation of workers, increase of virtual interactions and loss of peer support.
- Incorrect or unfair decisions about workers stemming from automated or semiautomated processes using data and/or software containing mistakes.
- Systems of nudges and penalties and the rating of workers’ performance.
- Unclear responsibility for OSH and the applicability of the existing OSH regulatory framework.
- Mobility, flexibility, 24/7 availability, and blurring of boundaries between work and private life.
EU-OSHA’s 2019 ESENER survey found evidence that increased use of digital technologies in the workplace is linked to psychosocial risks, such as time pressure, poor communication or cooperation, job insecurity, and working long shifts or irregular hours.
What’s more, in EU-OSHA’s 2022 OSH Pulse survey with workers, survey respondents state that digital technologies result in them working alone (44%), increase their surveillance at work (37%), reduce their autonomy at work (19%), determine the speed or pace of work (52%) and increase their workload (33%).
Also, data from the OSH Pulse 2022 survey display that home-based remote workers report an increase of workload (33.2%), speed or pace of work determined by digital technologies (61.2%), social isolation (56.8%) and severe time pressure or overload of work (46.9%) more frequently than the total employed population.