New ways, places and times of work – what are the health risks for workers?
The digitalisation of the economy has already significantly changed the nature and organisation of work across Europe. As well as being responsible for more people working in locations other than the office and outside the traditional 9-5 model, it has also led to new forms of employment such as online outsourcing and short-term assignments through online platforms (often referred to as the gig economy).
Digitalisation affects many areas of our working lives and can lead to increased psychosocial and physical risk factors, both of which play an important part in the prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) for workers.
There are a range of psychosocial risk factors that are related to digitalisation. For many workers, the ability to do their job almost anywhere and anytime that digital devices permit can lead to an inability to switch off and a poor work/life balance.
New technologies such as Artificial Intelligence (AI), ICT, intelligent manufacturing, advanced automation and management practices relying on algorithms are expected to improve productivity. However, pursuing this increase in productivity could lead to work intensification and physical and cognitive overload for employees. Some employers might be viewing the maximum work output that could be produced, according to an algorithm, as the standard that employees should be held to all the time, without considering the human need for downtime or the realities of fluctuating health and energy levels.
Another psychosocial risk is related to new forms of employment. Several European surveys show that increasingly precarious forms of employment (such as part-time work, temporary work and ‘zero hour’ contracts) are becoming more common in response to increased flexibility in the labour market. This uncertainty is a source of psychosocial stress for workers employed in these ways. It can also affect other areas of workers’ lives as it can make it harder to be approved for a mortgage or a rental contract.
In some sectors and occupations, such as e-retail warehouse, employees are expected to pick items from storage, pack and deliver them under intense time pressure and constant monitoring through digital devices. The lack of autonomy to take a break or to slow down leads to an increased risk of MSDs. Delivery workers can also be put at increased risk of MSDs due to the fast expected pace of deliveries that does not leave them sufficient time to properly assess the best way to lift parcels. Working under time pressure or being paid per delivery incentivises workers to ignore signs of physical stress and exhaustion.
The digitalisation of the economy also affects physical risk factors that may lead to MSDs. One of the effects of homebased teleworking is that workers may not have the right ergonomic equipment at home to protect them from MSDs. Linked to this, is an increased risk that workers performing sedentary work (such as ‘on-screen control and monitoring’ activities) that involve predominantly visual work can lead to sustained constrained static postures of the trunk, neck and upper limbs, increasing the risk of chronic muscular pain. Sedentary work and the reduced need to commute also reduces the level of daily exercise, leading to an increased risk of obesity and diabetes, which both increase the risk of MSDs.
Workers who are engaged in platform work connect with other organisations or individuals through an application or online platform and arrange to provide specific services. Many of these platforms include a reviewing feature. Platform work can lead to physically demanding jobs such as food delivery, cleaning or mechanical services being performed under time pressure and permanent performance monitoring.
Ensuring that digitalisation leads to health benefits for employees
While digital technologies and new ways of working create new occupational safety and health (OSH) risks, they may also offer opportunities to reduce the instances of MSDs. For example, by using robots or exoskeletons to reduce the physical demand of some jobs. Additionally, the reduction in commuting time thanks to an increase in home-based teleworking can reduce the level of stress in workers’ lives. It also makes it easier for workers with mobility issues (such as ageing or disabled workers) and those with caring responsibilities, to enter the labour market.
To ensure that workers’ health is protected and to maximise the positive effects of digitalisation while minimising the negative, it will be key to continue updating the existing OSH regulations and policies at European or national level and adapt them to a more dispersed and diverse workforce.
Currently, many gig and on-call workers are not covered by standard labour regulations (including minimum wages, safety and health, and working time). It is important that this is remedied, especially if the digitalisation of the economy leads to more people being employed under these types of contracts.
Visit the teleworking priority page to access a wide range of resources, publications and tools on the topic. Remember to follow the campaign on social media via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn to keep up to date with the latest news.