The premise of occupational safety and health – my field of specialization — is that work should do no harm to health and in the best of worlds, should support it. But discerning whether technology and new forms of work are doing harm or doing good can often be tricky.
Let me give a personal example:
Early in my career, I was the first attorney in my office to ask for a part-time schedule to balance my new responsibilities as a parent with my work responsibilities. It was agreed that I would be in the office three days a week – while my work load never allowed me to work only three days a week, my new schedule made it possible to work around my children’s schedules on the days I was not in the office.
In theory it sounded great. But the reality was that it did not sit well with expectations of colleagues and clients. I quickly learned that people would wait a day for me to return their calls or to meet with them, but they were not willing to wait two days. So I worked at the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. But even limiting my absence from the office to only one day at a time, I would arrive in the morning to a fistful of slips for the calls I had missed the previous day, and files on my desk with notes that began with “since you were not in the office today . . . .”
Thankfully, shortly after I began my part-time schedule, my office introduced the latest technological innovation – voicemail. As a result, my relationship with the receptionist improved dramatically since she no longer needed to take dozens of messages for me, but I still had a voicemail box full of calls to return, and people who didn’t appreciate the time it took me to get back to them.
Then came the next technological innovation, the ability to retrieve voicemail messages from my home phone. I could now return calls from home while children were napping. My being in the office or not being in the office became less obvious and made the idea of me working a part-time schedule more palatable, particularly to my boss.
Then, in rapid succession came computers, mobile phones and the ability to return voice, text and email messages, which meant I could work at my desk or in my car waiting for my son to finish his music lesson.
But eventually, it also meant the work-life balance I had tried to achieve became a juggling act to keep all the “work and life” balls in the air simultaneously. And somewhere along this timeline of innovation, technology went from supporting my health to most likely harming it.
Assessing whether technology is a hazard that causes harm or increases risk of harm is complex and more often than not it has much to do with the choices made about how it is used.
Technology’s ability to minimize risk is often clear – as for example using a robot instead of person to enter a confined space with a high density of monoxide carbon. But in other circumstances, whether it meets the standard of “do no harm” and when it crosses the line from supporting health to harming it, is less salient.
In certain instances technology is being used to enable what looks like a new business model but when unmasked is an all too familiar exploitative one.
Just because we may feel outdated by the acceleration of technological innovation doesn’t mean the principles of decent work are also outdated.
We need to adapt our application of those principles to the world technology enables, and we also need to insist on the accountability of innovators and users of technology to protect the health and safety of workers. It isn’t good enough to say that technological innovations can be used for good or for bad, we must insist that innovative talent tip the scales to the good.