The Future of work- Global Ergonomics Month 2019

“There is no time like the present to talk about the future” says Bob Bridger, President of the Chartered Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors (CIEHF) this Global Ergonomics Month.

As I write this piece, I am aware that my working life and that of many of my colleagues, has changed dramatically in the last 40 years. I am no longer a desk-bound ‘knowledge worker’ but a ‘digital nomad’ with mobile devices, providing the affordances for work almost anywhere. 

The relationship between work, working conditions and the work environment has undergone a dramatic shift, making many of our scientific and legislative responses to work design either inadequate, inapplicable or obsolete, while introducing many new challenges:

Digital platforms now control many existing jobs and make new work roles possible. The gig economy being an example, with food delivery and taxis, and now extending to other areas such as logistics and distribution. New technologies such as smart glasses can augment human performance in applications such as stock picking, but the long-term effects are unknown.  

A renewed emphasis on mental wellbeing at work is to be welcomed, especially as it drives a rewarding and fun place to work. However, this more holistic approach should not replace the traditional focus on the identification and amelioration of psychosocial risks, including newer risks such as ‘technostress’. Workers may no longer be ‘tied to a machine’ on the factory floor. but they are often tied to the internet by mobile devices with little control over work demands or scheduling.
Much of our knowledge-base of human factors / ergonomics is based on the assumption that most people work full-time in one job or career, possibly for many years. Will the rise of a new generation of ‘slashers’ (one person/multiple roles; individuals combining different jobs and alternating between them constantly) render many of our ideas obsolete? 

Will exoskeletons and robots bring an end to the ‘epidemic’ of work-related musculoskeletal disorders in manual work, even bringing an end to the careers of some of our colleagues or forcing some of our consultancies to seek new areas of business? Or, will they introduce new risks of their own – such as long-term changes in muscle recruitment patterns or new work-related musculoskeletal disorders when the load is merely transferred lower down the kinetic chain. While making effortful exertions easier, will they make effortless exertions more difficult introducing new risks when complex movements are needed in a job?

Increased emphasis on sustainability, recycling and remediation of obsolete material and work sites may give rise to a new generation of hazardous jobs as workers are employed to do the work that cannot be mechanised or automated easily (such as sorting through conveyor belts of waste at recycling centres).

The success and safety of autonomous vehicles and transport systems may depend more on how they are perceived by users than the technology alone – whether users trust the system and are willing to allow it to operate when it should or whether they have inappropriate expectations about how capable the system really is and fail to take action when they should. 

With little sign that the ‘epidemic’ of obesity is in decline, the digital environment provides opportunities to make traditionally sedentary work more active. However, merely providing offices with more adjustable desks is likely to be inadequate and there is scope for developing new approaches to integrate physical activity into traditional office work. 

Many of these matters, and more are already being researched by the CIEHF’s members - there has never been a better time to embark on a career in this vibrant discipline. 

Bob’s new book ‘A guide to active working in the modern office’ - a short guide on sit-stand working in the office, is out later this month. More information coming soon!