New digital tools and processes have enormously changed the way we work. This is not without implications for occupational safety and health. Two essential questions that arise from this: How does digitalisation affect occupational safety and health (OSH), and what are the requirements for protecting employees in a digital working world? This much is certain: old ideas, regulations and laws need to be adapted.
Whether home office, remote work, online team meetings or online conferences: In many places, work or collaboration is increasingly taking place in virtual spaces or on digital platforms. But digitalisation is not only taking hold in the service sector, but also in the manufacturing sector - for example in the form of machine automation or AR and VR applications. It is therefore all the more important that companies always understand all these changes with their effects on employees and their work.
In Germany, the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (BAuA) analyses these changes on behalf of the Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs and develops contributions for preventive design. In a study paper from 2019, the Institute identified seven phenomena for occupational safety and health in a digitalised world of work. They all point to the need for awareness of problems and action so that occupational safety and digitisation are not mutually exclusive. For companies, this means that they must provide appropriate concepts. In any case, the documentation of occupational safety and health for companies is regulated by law in the Occupational Safety and Health Act. The challenge for SMEs is likely to be particularly great. Foresight and long-term planning are difficult in this area. Many companies have not yet really arrived in the digital world of work and are already facing the next challenge: occupational safety and health under these new conditions. Needless to say, the next far-reaching impact awaits with the topic of "artificial intelligence" (AI) - also in technical occupational safety and health.
Digital tools and technologies are replacing work formerly carried out by people, and exchanges with colleagues are increasingly taking place online. If, as a result, there is no or only limited human contact and the interaction between man and machine is in the foreground, this leads to the isolation of workers. The Corona pandemic has clearly shown us that not everyone can counteract this situation. According to a Forsa survey from 2022 commissioned by the TÜV Association, one in eight feels that working from home is a psychological burden, and 30 per cent feel alone. The feeling of constant availability caused by digital communication tools also puts a strain on the mental health of many people. Checking emails quickly in the evening or replying to a colleague - the more often employees act in this way, the more natural the expectation becomes.
A study recently published by BITKOM e.V. (link in German) shows that "[...] seven out of ten employees who are planning a summer holiday (70 percent) can be reached by text message or messenger. Two out of three (64 percent) are willing to make phone calls. A good quarter read and answered emails (27 percent) and would participate in video conferences, for example via Zoom, Skype or FaceTime (27 percent). One-sixth (16 per cent) are responsive via collaboration tools such as Microsoft Teams or Slack." The main reason cited for this willingness is the expectations of the professional environment. Bitkom CEO Dr Bernhard Rohleder has clear words for this: "Employers are responsible for establishing functioning substitution solutions so that employees can relax during the holidays."
In addition to the socio-psychological components, there are also physical ones: the aforementioned survey by the TÜV Association also showed that more than one in three had gained weight in the home office. Only one in two had an ergonomically designed workplace. The DKV Report 2021 proves: Our sitting times due to screen work are getting longer and longer since the pandemic. If our level of movement decreases, our stress level generally increases. Long and undynamic sitting leads to muscular and back problems. Our eyes can be damaged by the constant concentration on screens. Tendons become inflamed due to monotonous movement sequences. Add to this an overall high workload, while physical activity continues to decline, and the stress hormones released by the body can only be reduced to a limited extent.
The permanent mental and physical stress caused by an increasingly digital world of work is increasingly leading to typical widespread diseases such as burnout, heart attacks, strokes and degenerative diseases of the musculoskeletal system. In addition, some workers have the frightening feeling that their own job could be done by a machine in the near future. Yet digital tools and technologies are supposed to disburden us humans, not burden us, aren't they?
Organise and design occupational safety via digital tools
Hazards, deficiencies or measures to protect work: today, all this can be documented with the help of suitable software or an app. The digitally managed data and information can then be used to automatically generate risk assessments and reports - also with the help of AI. This is practical and also the only practical way to record the potential of individual measures, evaluate them and scale them accordingly if necessary in a maximally flexible working world in which people no longer necessarily work in one and the same place. Time- and location-sovereign access options must be guaranteed. However, this type of training software also means that a company must have the appropriate specialist staff to handle these tools and that the appropriate support is provided at the level of those responsible.
Wearables and AI in use for occupational health and safety
Mini-computers and sensor systems worn on the body are already widely used in private life. But their potential is also being discovered in the area of occupational safety. For several years, the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (IFA) has been researching how wearables can be used for this purpose. For example, the CUELA measuring system developed by the Institute records and analyses stresses on the musculoskeletal system under real conditions. The monitoring system is worn directly over the work clothing. The subsequent evaluation of the measured data is automated and carried out according to occupational science and biomechanical evaluation criteria. This allows measures to be derived to avoid occupational health hazards.
The Fraunhofer Institute Magdeburg is working on not only improving occupational health and safety and thus occupational safety in everyday industrial work with the help of virtual realities, but also making it more interesting if possible - using VR glasses and AR applications instead of PowerPoint karaoke, with gamification character instead of frontal teaching.
The British company Moodbeam has developed a wristband with which employers can assess the current well-being of their employees. No physical parameters such as heart rate, pulse or the like are tracked. The wristband, which is connected to a mobile phone app and a web interface, only has two buttons that employees can press: If the yellow button is selected, this expresses general well-being; if the blue button is pressed, the opposite is the case. This way, according to Moodbeam, the mood of employees in the home office is to be captured so that employers can react to possible problems.
ISA, an AI system from German high-tech start-up Deep Care, aims to act as a personal digital health coach to help employees capture unhealthy behaviours and develop countermeasures. It is a small device that stands on the desk and regularly checks the body posture via 3-D sensor and detects unhealthy behaviours at the workplace via algorithms. The special feature: The system does not record any data, it works without a camera and offline.
The possibilities of wearables and artificial intelligence in occupational safety and health are certainly diverse, as the examples given show. However, two things must be explicitly observed when implementing them: The applications themselves must not burden occupational health and safety and the sensitive areas of "data protection" and "privacy" must remain guaranteed.
"New Normal" needs new concepts - also in occupational safety and health
Digitisation itself is - and this is important - only ever the trigger for change. Shaping this change in such a way that it does not leave behind any physical or physical damage to workers in the world of work must be and remain a joint effort by all relevant actors. Strategies, concepts and concrete action aids on how digital technology can be used safely and in a way that is beneficial to health should therefore become an indispensable part of occupational safety and health.
Technology is one thing. Another is how it is used in occupational safety and health - whether it enriches it instead of burdening it. Questions about adequate protection of personal data through digital tools must also be adequately clarified in order to strengthen trust and thus acceptance in wearables or AI, for example.
Despite all the changes brought about by digitalisation, it would be wrong to assume that new occupational safety and health regulations are solely due to digital tools and technology. Our working world as a whole seems to demand more occupational safety and health.
Text: Alexa Brandt