No-one is immune to the digital realm and its inexorable powering of big data. This is given added fuel by the advent of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning. In fact, all our workplaces, working lives and wellbeing are being changed, changed utterly.

To add to the change and uncertainty, global warming is already impacting workers’ safety and health, both physically and mentally. Forecast to become yet more intense, climate change is not only turning up the heat on those of us working at the meteorological front line, but also raising their occupational risks and vulnerability.

This dynamic new world of work promises to reveal a massively greater scale of intelligence that will shape new ways of doing things and could see workplaces and workers become safer and healthier, with improved wellbeing. For example, new technologies will thankfully take people out of some dangerous work situations, such as in mining for example. In other cases, technology will relieve workers of danger by simply performing tasks more safety and efficiently, beyond previous limitations.

Our new-found digital ability to produce vast amounts of data will form a new level of intelligence that can be used for the good of worker health, safety and wellbeing through predictive analytics, for example. It could lead to safety and health improvements bringing about greater social equity and fairness and it may mean psychological injuries and mental health start to be regulated in the same way as physical injuries.

That said, my organisation, the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) recently teamed up with sustainable development experts Arup to commission a report on the future of work – and it showed workers face a risky, uncertain future.

Towards a safe and healthy future of work explores how advances in technology, climate change and adaptations to ways of working potentially pose risks to workers’ health, safety and wellbeing. With an estimated 7,500 people already dying every day from unsafe or unhealthy working conditions, the report poses a number of ‘what-if’ questions designed to highlight to governments, businesses and the health and safety profession that IOSH represents how collective action is needed to ensure people are protected in and out of work.

Embracing the climate challenges as well as the rapid technological and digital advances we face, these ‘what-if’ scenarios crystalise some of the more concerning aspects of our new-found knowledge and learning:

What if…

  • The application of new technologies to improve worker protection creates other health, safety and wellbeing risks?
  • Technology tells an employer of a worker’s health condition before the worker?
  • The green transition isn’t just, fair and equal for all workers?
  • Key industries aren’t equipped to meet the needs of all generations of workers?
  • Gig work overtakes secure employment, leading to far fewer social protections for workers?

On this final point, the report highlights how much the gig economy and platform work is on the rise. The gig economy has a labour market that relies heavily on short-term, temporary and part-time positions where work is filled by independent contractors and freelancers rather than full-time permanent employees, meaning more informal working relationships. Gig workers gain flexibility and independence but little or no job security. The gig economy features platform-based work, where individuals offer services through digital platforms or apps as independent contractors, ranging from delivery jobs to freelance tasks on specific projects.

IOSH commissioned a survey of platform workers operating in the gig economy, to identify OSH and wellbeing risks, challenges and opportunities. Most of these workers were employed in delivery jobs and freelance tasks for specific projects.

Of the 1,000 UK platform workers who responded to the survey, conducted by Opinium, 58 per cent said working for an online platform resulted in them having unpredictable income, making it difficult to pay bills, with the same number saying it causes them difficulty caring for dependants, including children and elderly relatives. Meanwhile, 63 per cent said it impacts their ability to take holidays and 54 per cent believed they have low levels of job security.

The survey also revealed two in five platform workers believe they have experienced stress that’s either caused or made worse by their work in the past year, with a third complaining of tiredness or exhaustion.

There is a clear need for strong, robust, modern health and safety regulation that takes account of the globally changing world of work. Yet, as the IOSH/Arup report points out, the current drive for deregulation in countries including the UK could risk weakening current health and safety standards.

So, the report makes a series of calls to action and it does so on three fronts:


  • To ratify the International Labour Organization conventions relating to health and safety
  • To protect and preserve human rights, decent work and worker protection in the face of new and emerging hazards (this includes those related to climate change and new technologies)
  • To review and update regulations to ensure health and safety risks are addressed.


  • To support sustainable development by working to achieve the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and national targets
  • To identify and address existing and emerging health and safety risks (which includes those seen across supply chains)
  • To include health and safety management in organisational strategies, plans and business continuity.

Health and safety professionals

  • To contribute and support the implementation of sustainable work practices
  • To argue for health and safety to be a central consideration in the development of new technologies
  • To keep up to date with changes and so be able to continue to advise businesses on managing new and emerging risks. IOSH will support in this by continuing to commission and share research on health and safety matters.

Health and safety professionals face the future with a real sense of excitement and opportunity, but also with caution and uncertainty. What we know for certain is that the world of work will continue to change, though we can’t know for sure how this will play out and evolve. What is imperative, however, is that whatever changes come, we continue to ensure a safe and healthy working environment for all workers, as is their right.

The IOSH/Arup report highlights this, focusing on how new technologies and the digital era are creating opportunities to improve how people are protected at work. But it also shows that this can create new hazards and risks to health and safety, all of which need to be managed.

Among the changes that have already come in is that continued rise in gig work. Yet the results of our gig economy survey show people working in this sector are really struggling, which is of real concern and requires action. It is worth noting that our survey data was obtained within the UK, where our regulator is clear that, for health and safety purposes, gig workers should be treated no differently to other workers, yet our findings show we still have work to do. Internationally, for platform workers, there are also concerns about the quality of the jobs, social protections and freedom of association.

This needs action and that action needs to be collective. My profession wants to work with governments, businesses and other professions to enable a safe and healthy world of work where we prevent harm, protect workers and manage proportionately and sensibly, by designing in health and safety, consulting on, risk assessing, implementing and monitoring new technologies. Crucially, we must ensure that people can go home from work safe and well, every day.

In highlighting these trends, our report wants health and safety professionals and business to become more forward-thinking and to improve health, safety and wellbeing outcomes for all workers. The ‘what if’ scenarios it poses highlight future uncertainty to provoke, inspire and encourage all parties to consider the fullest possible range of possible actions that are required to achieve a safe and healthy future of work.

There are so many factors that are going to have an impact on workers’ health, safety and wellbeing as we move forward. These range from changing employment models and work patterns to flexible and remote working, climate change and the green transition to new technologies and digital platforms. Some of these changes will be gradual and evolutionary, while others will be dramatic and fast-paced. All require attention from all interested parties.

I’ve highlighted how governments in every country need to ratify and effectively implement ILO fundamental OSH Conventions aimed at protecting people against sickness, disease and injury related to the work environment. But it’s the responsibility of all of us to:

  • Drive forward social sustainability by removing structural inequity, to enhance diversity and inclusion and ensure a fair and just green transition
  • Develop the right responses to those growing risks linked to climate change, new and emerging technologies and mental health. Actions needed will range from using safety-in-design approaches to regulatory changes, to implementing new evaluation and control strategies to protect against emerging occupational hazards
  • Ensure occupational safety and health professionals and workers have the right level of awareness, skills and knowledge of health, safety and wellbeing in the workplace. These include ‘softer skills’, digital capability and ethical decision-making. Developing appropriate education, vocational training and lifelong learning will be key.

After all, you can have all the technology in the world, but it’s people who will still be central to making it work.


The IOSH/Arup report is available online: Towards a safe and healthy future of work (

The IOSH gig economy survey asked 1,000 platform workers about their experiences of the work they do. ‘Platform work’ refers to when individuals offer services through digital platforms or apps as independent contractors. Such services could include delivering or transporting goods, completing tasks like cleaning or running general errands.

Ruth Wilkinson
Head of Policy and Public Affairs at IOSH | Website | + posts

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) is the Chartered body for health and safety professionals. Founded in 1945, IOSH is a charity with a simple vision – a safe and healthy world of work for everyone. With more than 50,000 members in over 130 countries, they're the world’s largest professional health and safety organisation. IOSH training and consultancy solutions help businesses solve real health and safety problems in the workplace using practical and effective tools, processes and knowledge.