The future of work: shaping a human-centred workplace

“The focus of occupational health and safety (OHS) should be on insights, not incidents.” This was among the observations made at the 2019 Saiosh Health and Safety Conference. DEBORAH RUDMAN reports

While addressing the delegates on the topic The Future of Work in South Africa the Director General of the Department of Labour (DoL), Thobile Lomati expressed the view that taking a human-centred approach towards work makes the most sense from a moral as well as an economic point of view.

He noted that the future of work is already changing, reflecting several “indisputable truths” such as the effect of the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the move from full-time employment to the gig economy. In addition, the traditional protection offered to workers (in the form of the Unemployment Insurance Fund (UIF), for instance) was no longer adequate.

He noted that the Global Competitiveness Report (GCR) 2018 issued by the World Economic Forum (WEF) was a clarion call for respect for employee rights and protection of the right to work, which is crucial to meet material needs, build decent lives and promote a sense of identity and self-esteem. He added that work fosters interpersonal connections and expands the individual’s perspective.

He said that the Fourth Industrial Revolution is characterised by technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI), automation and robotics, and that these are disruptors that bring opportunities, but also pose urgent challenges.

He stated that, in South Africa, highly skilled people stand to benefit, while the illiterate on the lowest societal rung are doomed to suffer the most. “The skills of today will not match the jobs of tomorrow,” he said.

The GCR report calls for a new approach that puts people and the work they do at the centre of economic and social policy and business practice.

Work can, however, be dangerous, which is where OHS comes in. He questioned why targets, of say 1,5 percent, are set for death and disability. He stated: “I’m a proponent of zero harm, especially since in South Africa one worker is usually responsible for seven or eight dependants.”

He recommended that OHS risks be elevated into the top ten strategic risks that are focused on by risk officers and risk-management practitioners, adding that in amendments to the Act the DoL had prescribed the implementation of a risk-management system.

“By putting this provision in the amendments, hopefully, occupational health and safety matters will receive the same priority and attention that is given to other strategic organisational matters.”

Lamati advised that safety should be communicated as a value in the workplace. Its importance needs to be emphasised and understood, and a safety ethos entrenched. “Instead of taking a top-down approach, rather co-opt the workers. They know far better than management how the equipment operates,” he said.

On the responsibility facing OHS practitioners to understand and leverage the evolving technology, he noted: “You cannot manage something you don’t know.”

He stated that new products – digital equipment ranging from drones and robots to wearables for workers, proximity sensors for vehicles, and even smart personal protective equipment – are being developed at a rapid pace.

He felt that OHS professionals will need more time, exposure to information (such as at the Saoish Conference), professional help from IT departments, or a dedicated safety technician to get to grips with these products.

Lomati said: “They need to develop a technology ‘roadmap’, using the available data to identify high-risk sectors and improve the efficacy of the inspection system.

“This is important, because the DoL will never have the number of inspectors required to monitor the levels of compliance with the labour laws. Now is the time to develop these strategies to identify and mitigate risks.”

He concluded: “The aim is to ensure that the use of technology supports a ‘decent-work agenda’ and thus helps to shape our workplaces into human-centred institutions.”

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