Digital technologies supposedly intended to, among other things, improve workplace safety are throwing up new types of occupational hazards, which may prove more detrimental than physical injuries experienced in previous work environments.
It’s a trend where workers may no longer be limping, bleeding and dying at work, but silently decaying amid increased pressure, exhaustion and stress.
Emerging digital and automation technologies in the workplace are seen as a solution to costly labour, while at the same time improving safety by reducing work intensity and replacing humans in dangerous roles.
A new digital realm
But the new frontier of workplace technologies throws up a new set of problems relating to displacement and the economic challenge of mass unemployment.
Furthermore, the traditional conception of occupational health and safety has mostly been based on effects arising from physical exertion and exposure to physical injury at work.
We have therefore traditionally thought of occupational safety from the perspective of the physical environment of work, the tools of trade and the length of the working day.
But the introduction of sophisticated surveillance and monitoring technologies – watching every aspect of one’s work has introduced new and heightened levels of stress at work.
In addition, the increasing digitalisation of work has rendered work mobile and blurred the boundaries of work and life.
Workers are not only under employers’ constant watch, but also always at work.
The digitisation con
A new book, Humans and machines at work; Monitoring, surveillance and automation in contemporary capitalism explores the rapidly changing relationship between workers, technology and employers.
The authors question arguments often put forward by digitalisation proponents – namely that increasing digital mediation of work will rid society of dirty, physical and menial work and create an easier, safer, flexible work and leisure society.
“These predictions, as shown earlier, have remained mostly unfulfilled with research showing increasing work intensity, worker anxiety, and declining wages and productivity,” the authors observe.
Likewise, the book discounts the attempts to present increased digital surveillance and monitoring as fostering positive “group cohesion and greater adjustment.”
In fact, its analysis of previous case studies reveals a patronising employer attitude, whereby the worker is conceived “as an irrational near-primitive,” whose “anti-authoritarian feelings and personal hang-ups” must be dispersed and released.
More broadly and perhaps more problematic, surveillance and monitoring is often not confined to the traditional working day, but pervades into personal space.
Through location access and location tracking programs attached to workers’ work systems and communication technologies, there’s an inherent employer expectation that workers will be available and engaged at all times.
The increasing analysis of communication and performance data can subject workers to incredible and continuous pressure – allowing employers to see how many hours one spends on the system, how many emails are responded to and how many tasks are completed.
The blurring of the work-life space means that most employees are unable to completely switch off.
While employers boast of reducing workplace injuries and fatalities as a result of automation and digitalisation, they often fail to acknowledge and respond to this new, and perhaps more dangerous, health and safety issue – more hazardous because the impacts are further spread, yet less visible.
A regulation quagmire
This new form of workplace health and safety problem is also extremely difficult to regulate for those in the industrial relations space.
Traditional regulatory systems for workplace health and safety have not anticipated situations, where workers are unable to clearly express their injuries and relate them to employers, as well as a society unable to clearly identify and define the nature of the problem.
The injuries are likely to be more mental and emotional than physical and therefore much harder to detect and address.
In this scenario, employer culpability is more an unnoticeable lack of action, rather than obvious neglect of responsibility – very difficult to articulate and regulate.