Drive for Uber, develop an app, start a YouTube channel . . . The “gig” economy is here and growing. Gig work was once the domain of musicians and performers, but many traditional jobs are being deconstructed and recast as gigs: task-oriented, demand-driven and often precarious contracts. Gig work is not just “moonlighting” beyond regular employment; many workers now make a living through concurrent gigs. As the gig economy grows, workers’ compensation organizations must consider how to regulate these jobs, what safety measures should apply, and how to assess and insure earnings.
Robots and the artificial intelligence (AI) behind them are no longer the stuff of science fiction. Cost-competitive industrial robots are already replacing production-line workers. Semi-autonomous and self-driving means of transportation are on our roads today. Automated work-flow systems are dictating work activity in offices. Intelligent automated systems are executing complex tasks, including adjudication of workers’ compensation claims. There is tremendous opportunity for workers’ compensation boards to leverage smart technologies not only to improve efficiencies but also to enhance their objective decision-making processes and, ultimately, service to workers and employers.
As technology assumes more specialized and knowledge-based tasks, demand for semi-skilled workers declines. The consequential narrowing of alternative occupations demands that we expand traditional approaches to vocational rehabilitation for injured workers. Technology may reduce worker risk and injury costs, but this has implications for industry classification and assessments. Maintaining an effective funding and efficient administration model in the face of these changes will demand responsive and agile leadership.
Industrialization, electrification, the assembly line and computerization all disrupted workplaces. Now, the internet-of-things, cell and satellite tracking, miniaturization of real-time video capture, and telemetric monitoring are converging and merging with AI to change the way we work. Predictive analytics can detect changing risk profiles to prevent injuries before they happen. We must adapt our approach to occupational health and safety.
Bionics, biometrics, wristwatch-sized devices equivalent to airplane black boxes and snowboarders’ GoPro cameras can monitor every person and physical asset in a workplace in three-dimensional space. The opportunity for enhancing health and safety will challenge traditional boundaries of personal privacy.
Smartphones and other disruptive technologies have made instant answers and communication an expectation. Our tolerance for even microsecond delays in virtual and personal interactions continues to fall. Service is increasingly defined by speed rather than thoroughness. Workers’ compensation organizations will not escape increasing demand for right-now, 24/7 services.
We can still talk to people face to face, but our relationships are increasingly being intermediated by technology. Our growing addiction to our devices can lead to devastating results: Texting, posting or Googling in the virtual world while operating equipment in the real one can be disastrous. Distracted driving is now as dangerous, and as deadly, as impaired driving. Occupational health and safety regulations will need to be updated to address our growing attachment to digital technology in relation to operating equipment and performing every other work activity.
Managing reputational risks in the age of social media is an expanding challenge. The workers’ compensation system works because employers and workers support its social contract. Without public confidence, workers’ compensation would lose its authority in safety, health, and compensation matters. Just one negative story—even if it is false—shared a thousand times on social media can destroy confidence in mere days. How well workers’ compensation systems meet the reputation-management challenge will influence their success in preventing injuries and delivering the service and entitlements stakeholders deserve.
The Canadian labour force is becoming more diverse in terms of age, gender, culture and ethnicity. It’s not just that there are more older people in the population—their participation rate in the paid economy has more than doubled in the past 15 years. Tasks designed for twenty-somethings may put older workers at risk. Ergonomic parameters for repetitions, weight limits and durations determined suitable for young, male workers often fail the age and gender realities of today’s workplaces. Workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety must adapt to increasing numbers of temporary foreign workers and newcomers, whose cultural, social and linguistic backgrounds do not conform to traditional approaches and assumptions.
There is growing acceptance of the fact that injury can occur to the mind as well as the body. Regulations to protect workers from, and compensate them for, work-related psychological injuries are increasing but far from universal. Workers’ compensation developed in the context of a predominantly male workforce’s risk of traumatic injury, limited recognition of occupational disease, and life expectancy that didn’t go much beyond the traditional age of retirement, 65. That’s not the scientific, social, and demographic reality today. Research will reveal the “work-relatedness” of many more health conditions and outcomes; life expectancy will continue to increase. How well workers’ compensation will meet the resulting prevention and compensation challenges is largely a matter of will.
The demonstrated capacity of the workers’ compensation and occupational health and safety systems to adapt to changing workplaces, adopt new technology, and actively respond to new realities over the 100+ years of its existence in Canada bodes well for its future. There will always be unforeseen demands, novel hazards and insidious threats in workplaces, but the compensation and prevention mandate of our workers’ compensation systems remains the same. With agility, responsiveness and leadership, workers’ compensation organizations can seize the opportunities in these challenges, improve outcomes from past injuries and strive for a future free of workplace injury, illness and disease.
The workers’ compensation system in Canada has proved to be remarkably resilient. Historically, it has adapted well to social and technological change. But can a system with roots in the nineteenth century continue to meet the occupational health, safety and compensation needs of the twenty-first century? Emerging issues in employment, technology and demographics present challenges, to be sure, but also opportunities. Workers’ compensation organizations will have to be visionary and nimble if they are to seize these opportunities.
Terrance J. Bogyo is an independent researcher, speaker and consultant specializing in workers' compensation and occupational health and safety issues. He is a member of the National Academy of Social Insurance study panel on workers' compensation data and an adjunct faculty member at Pacific Coast University for Workplace Health Sciences. More of his views can be found on his blog at www.WorkersCompPerspectives.blogspot.ca.