The massive flight disruption in London’s Gatwick airport due to drone sightings during the busy Christmas season underscored the new reality of how safety — both public and occupational — can be held hostage by random acts perpetuated by irresponsible individuals.
Disruptions, which prevent a system, process or an event from continuing as usual or expected, entail an element of surprise and frustration. In today’s occupational health and safety landscape, disruptions are often subversive, have potentially large ramifications and are primarily driven by technological innovation, demographic shifts and climate change.
Examples of workplace-safety disruption driven by these three forces include the following: cyberattacks (resulting in unauthorized access of data, services and control networks); the emergence of artificial intelligence (such as robots and selfdriving vehicles that resolve — and create — new safety concerns); the transition from Babyboomer to the Millennial workforce; and threats from climate change (think wildfires and the increasing need to factor emergency preparedness and planning as part of a safety-management plan). There is also a psychological dimension to disruptions: distraction aside, digital technology has led to the rise of flexible workplaces that blur the line between work and home. It has also given workplace conflict a new profile: online harassment or bullying.
On the whole, the changes occurring on the oh&s front have created a general climate of rapid transformation and uncertainty. But disruption is not all bad: it is also an impetus to effect a tangential change and prompt a rethink of how we approach workplace safety.
Digital technology can capture and present safety data in a more accessible and user-friendly way, giving rise to enhanced data analysis and new safety metrics that can better identify areas for improvement and spawn new ways of preventing injuries and fatalities. Artificial intelligence allows the delegation of hazardous work from humans to robots, eliminating risk altogether. Digital technology has given rise to remote work and decreased the need to commute to work, while global warming will continue to fuel the innovation of green technology, with the electric car being a recent example.
We have a lot to learn moving forward, but one thing is clear: we are living in the Age of Disruption where change happens often and quickly. In this Era of Flux, we need to constantly learn and relearn. Regulatory changes will become more frequent as lawmakers play catch up to address emerging issues brought about by technological advances. Compliance, enforcement and prevention will continue to be pillars of workplace-safety management as laid out in the hierarchy of hazard controls, which is a five-step, inverted-diamond process of elimination, substitution, engineering and administrative controls and personal protective equipment. But safety professionals of the future will increasingly be expected to adopt a more proactive stance and serve not just as guardians of workplace safety, but also change managers.
The disruption curve will only become steeper with time. There is no turning back, and our only option is to ride the wave — or be engulfed by it.