The Future of Work and the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health

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Worker health and safety is impacted by rapid changes in industrial technologies.

Innovation in the 21st century has brought us advanced artificial intelligence, alternative energy sources, and industrial automation on a massive scale. One innovation in the realm of automation is 3D printing of both polymers and metals. But with new manufacturing techniques and technologies come new health and safety concerns.

“Potential hazards of 3D printing involve worker exposure to emissions from heated filaments, polymers or powders,” Kevin Druley writes in “3D Printing and Worker Safety” in Safety and Health Magazine. “Experts say the risk depends on the engineering requirements of the object being printed, the material from which it’s produced and the printing method itself. Occupational exposure limits for 3D printer emissions have yet to be established.”

In response to health and safety concerns over technological innovations such as 3D printing, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) launched the “Future of Work” (FOW) Initiative and the Total Worker Health Program to develop safety regulations and protocols for new and improved industrial technologies.

Anyone interested in pursuing health and safety issues in the workplace as a career would do well to consider a bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety. From there, graduates can work in safety-related fields ranging from fire protection to risk identification, corporate compliance, and the development of safety programs.

The Future of Work Initiative

Since the early 2000s, NIOSH has faced dramatic shifts in the landscape of the workplace, the workforce, and technologies used in production and construction. Worker health and safety is impacted by globalization, Industry 4.0, climate change, emergency and disaster preparedness and response, and new exposures and hazards.

The FOW Initiative “is a collaborative effort of multidisciplinary research, communication, and partnerships throughout NIOSH, other agencies, and organizations that aims to identify novel research solutions, practical approaches, and partnership opportunities to address the future of work,” according to “Future of Work Initiative” on the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC’s) website.

The goals of the FOW Initiative include:

  • Compiling studies on the future of work.
  • Staging research projects related to the initiative.
  • Promoting research results among new industries and technologies to influence organizational designs, job arrangements, risk profiles, and ways to control those risks.
  • Connecting trends to prepare for the future of occupational health and safety.

Most of the fastest-growing occupations in the Unites States are related to healthcare, an industry experiencing rapid changes in technology and innovation. Careers in the field include home health and personal care aides, occupational therapy assistants, physician assistants, and nurse practitioners, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ employment projections.

Other fast-growing occupations include solar photovoltaic installers, wind turbine service technicians, information security analysts, and statisticians.

Very few fields in any industry, however, have been untouched by the wave of technological advancement. New materials, devices, production methods, and even digital technologies (including deep learning algorithms, social media, and blockchain) affect workers’ physical and psychological health and safety in ways that regulatory organizations need to consider as our economy rushes into the future.

FOW Priorities

NIOSH lists a series of FOW Initiative priority topics on the CDC’s website. These priorities help to paint a picture of the gravity of the initiative and why the future of worker health and safety will rely heavily on the NIOSH’s insights. Topics include:

  • Organizational design topics such as burnout and stress prevention, social and corporate responsibility, healthy leadership, and job flexibility.
  • Technological job displacement topics such as automation and digitization, productivity enhancement, and occupational polarization (the phasing out of mid-level jobs).
  • Work arrangement topics such as distributed workforces, contracting freelancers, on-demand employee arrangements, and digital app-based work (such as Door Dash and Instacart).
  • Artificial intelligence topics such as machine learning and neural networks.
  • Technology topics such as cloud and quantum computing, 3D printing, bio-manufacturing, green technologies, Internet-of-Things, and nanotechnology.
  • Robotics topics such as autonomous vehicles and drones, human-machine interaction, wearable exoskeletons, and industrial robots.
  • Demographics topics such as diversity and inclusivity, productive aging, and vulnerable populations.
  • Economic security topics such as guaranteed hours, adequate wages, and commensurate benefits.
  • Skills topics such as continuing education/training, re-skilling, and up-skilling.

These priorities are further complicated by issues stemming from politics and policies, availability of resources, and social disruptions that create a “new normal.” The COVID-19 pandemic is a perfect example of a social disruption that requires major health and safety adjustments in workplaces.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has added new concerns and responsibilities for workplace safety and health professionals,” EHS Daily Advisor explains in “What Safety Challenges Does the Future of Work Hold?”.

“Recent recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for office environments include significant engineering and administrative changes ranging from repositioning workstations or installing plastic partitions to making major changes to heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems. Recommendations for meat and poultry processing are similarly disruptive.”

The Total Worker Health Program

One tool that NIOSH uses to develop new and improved health and safety regulations and recommendations is the Total Worker Health Program. This program uses information collected from sensors, data analysis, and various other technologies to give researchers a better sense of workers’ exposure to health and safety risks, according to EHS.

The Total Worker Health Program also develops curriculum for workplace safety and health training. It involves six competencies:

  • Subject matter expertise
  • Advocacy and engagement
  • Program planning, implementation, and evaluation
  • Communications and dissemination
  • Leadership and management
  • Partnership building and coordination

The goal of NIOSH’s FOW and Total Worker Health is to develop, coordinate, and share health and safety recommendations across all industries affected by recent technological innovations and unprecedented social disruptions. These recommendations can then be incorporated into worker training programs and corporate safety guidelines.

Occupational health and safety workers can expect to rely heavily on the FOW Initiative’s findings for years to come. As new technologies and practices are introduced into the workplace, NIOSH can provide indispensable information on associated safety and health concerns.

Eastern Kentucky University’s Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety Program

Eastern Kentucky University’s online bachelor’s degree in occupational health and safety program is designed to teach students how to identify and analyze potential workplace hazards, infractions, and risks.

Experienced safety professionals guide students through environmental health and safety classes online, covering modern trends in employee engagement and the establishment of a safety culture in the workplace. For more information, contact EKU today.

Recommended Reading:

The Economic Aspect of Health and Safety

An Overview of Occupational Safety in the United States

Occupational Health and Safety Specialists: A Day in the Life


3D Printing and Worker Safety –

Future of Work Initiative –

Employment Projections –

NIOSH Future of Work Initiative Priority Topics –

What Safety Challenges Does the Future of Work Hold? –