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New challenges for work environments as technology and humans come together

New challenges for work environments as technology and humans come together

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

The work environment of the future will be here sooner than we think, and it will be different from the one labour inspection authorities have been monitoring until now. A new Nordic report considers some threats that look like science fiction. Others are already a reality for many workers, yet we know little about these threats’ long-term effects.

The report looks at how Nordic labour inspection authorities might deal with new technology and issues that have negative – or positive – consequences for workers:

  • Surveillance 
  • Working alongside robots
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • New tools, like 3D printers
  • Work organisation
  • Big Data

Finland commissioned the report and was instrumental in its execution. The Finnish Ministry of Social Affairs and Health points out that the report is unique in several ways.

“First, the report focusses on occupational safety and health and labour inspection. This perspective is not common in future of work studies and analyses. Second, the report gives practical recommendations for labour inspectorates. Third, the report provides an exclusive Nordic perspective on themes of regional and global importance in the context of labour inspection. 

Four megatrends

Four megatrends influence work environments: new technology, an ageing population, globalisation and climate change. New work environment issues have emerged before. In the 1970s few people believed smoking in the workplace was a problem that labour inspectorates needed to care about. 

Meanwhile, old problems remain too. Muscular and skeletal strain is something we will struggle with for many years to come. We are not even over the asbestos problem, because many construction workers still are exposed to this during the demolition or modernisation.

Electrics scooters

Electric scooters at Oslo's Karl Johan street

The speed of change has increased, however. A few years ago not many people had seen an electric scooter. Now Oslo’s main A&E receive eight injuries caused by electric scooters every day. The opposite problem is inactivity –  sedentary jobs are now considered to be one of Europe’s biggest work environment challenges. 

The report was written by the Nordic Future of Work Group, which is made up of specialists from the Nordic labour inspectorates. They started working in 2016. Because labour inspectors and other authorities have written the report, it is more concrete and to the point than many other research reports. This is what they write about the different issues mentioned above: 


Surveillance of occupational health typically used to be conceived in terms of monitoring worker health and different work environment factors.  

“However, with new forms of work and the technologies at hand, constant visual and digital surveillance of the worker is a reality. This is plausible through video cameras, apps and mobile devices including smart wearables. 

“Although these technologies give employers the possibility to improve efficiency and monitor the safety of the workers, they also provide the opportunity for constant control and incessant performance evaluations. Such ceaseless intrusion of privacy could be detrimental to the psychosocial health of workers.”

Working with robots 

Workers and industrial robots have traditionally been working together, but separated from each other – a robot might for instance be inside a steel cage. But soon it will be possible to use prosthetics, giving humans the power to do more. Many occupations will introduce robots that work in tandem with a human, sometimes known as “cobots” (from collaborative robots). So far workers have had limited experience with working together with robots. Robots working with the same tasks as humans can lead to anything from risk of collisions to psychological consequences.   


The robot Asimo has been developed by the Japanese Honda corporation Here two robots are serving food. Asimo can recognise ten different people and address them by name. It can identify moving objects, people’s posture and their gestures. Photo: Honda 

“Working alone with robots who possess both physical strength and emotional intelligence might be a challenging proposition,” write the report's authors.

An artificial exoskeleton is a kind of suit which can be used to protect people working in dangerous environments, or to increase a worker’s strength. 

Exoskeletons that are not a perfect fit can result in too much pressure on nerves, disproportionate strain on the spine or compression of the chest, warn the authors.

Artificial intelligence

An increasing number of tasks are influenced or driven by artificial intelligence (AI). It might be in the form of which Uber driver gets a passenger, which diagnosis is made or which people are hired.

“The software program coding utilised in these technologies is not accessible to outsiders or inspectors; only the coding personnel who design these technologies have access to it and know how it works. Thus, assessment, evaluation and decision making based on AI is not necessarily transparent,” write the authors.

Problems can emerge when AI starts being used if the information supplied to the process by humans is wrong from the start. This will then only be amplified over time.

Big Data

New technology can also be used by labour inspectorates, of course, to discover risks faster and to help a business focus. Only a small selection of all companies and businesses can be controlled, so it is important to choose the ones with the largest risks. The size of the workplace, the number of different nationalities who work there and workers’ experience all influence the risk of accidents. 

The report received a lot of positive feedback when it was presented during a webinar. 

“This report comes at the same time as 11 other EU countries are about to review their work with occupational health,” said William Cockburn, Head of the Research Unit at the  European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, EU-OSHA. 

“The report is really timely since the EU is about to develop a new work environment strategy post-2020,” said Charlotte Grevfors Ernoult, Head of the EU Senior Labour Inspectors Committee Unit (SLIC)

“This report is the first of its kind and it is pretty relevant to other countries besides the Nordics,” said Joaquin Nunes, Head of Department for Inspection Activities Support at ILO.

72 recommendations

So what recommendations does the report present? Altogether there are 72 different ones, outlining what labour inspectorates can do. Some are of a general nature, like developing new indicators that also include what is happening in the platform economy and working tasks impacted by new technology.

Other recommendations are more specific, like developing methods for how people working from home can help map work environment risks themselves, observe regular working hours and report potential stress and strain to their employers.

The only recommendation that came in for some criticism during the webinar was to increase cooperation with new organisations representing sole traders, or those who carry out digital or globalised working tasks.

“Why do we always think new situations need new solutions? If we don’t cooperate with representative organisations we risk seeing those leading the new organisation only speak up for themselves,” said Kris de Meester, senior advisor at Business Europe.

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Turbocharged by AI

Work environments face various new challenges from new technologies like 3D printers, brain-computer interface and surveillance. Linked to artificial intelligence, all this can turbocharge work environments. Photo: Björn Lindahl and Neurotechnology (centre picture above). 

Read the report here:


The report was written by Päivi Mattila-Wiro, Yogindra Samant, Wiking Husberg, Magnus Falk, Annemarie Knudsen and Eyjolfur Saemundsson.


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