Emerging Challenges - Australian Work Health and Safety Strategy 2023-2033

Rise of artificial intelligence (AI), automation and related technologies

New technology capabilities can bring many benefits, including safer work and workplaces. But they need to be designed and have appropriate oversight to ensure workers are not exposed to new or additional WHS risks.

For example, while automation could replace some dangerous manual tasks (decreasing worker exposure to physical risks), workers overseeing the technology could be exposed to more psychosocial hazards resulting from increased or more complex interpersonal interactions as part of their job role.

New types of work

The nature of work is changing, along with the relationship between workers and PCBUs. Growing numbers of people now have multiple jobs and there has been an increase in gig and platform work. More frequently multiple PCBUs are involved in work at the same location or involved in the same undertaking who share responsibilities under WHS laws. While roles and responsibilities are relatively well understood in traditional work arrangements, more can be done to explain WHS roles and responsibilities in platform, online or disintermediated work contexts.

Workforce demographic shifts

New WHS risks are likely to emerge as Australia’s population and economy continues to change. The number of older workers in the labour force is set to increase further as the distribution of our population moves towards older ages. Data show that when older people are injured, they are likely to require more time off work to recover. 

Labour shortages in key industries such as agriculture, health care and social assistance may lead to a sharp increase in migrant workers with CALD backgrounds. PCBUs must take a proactive approach to address any barriers to health and safety posed by these demographic workforce trends, and design appropriate health and safety systems and working environments for all workers.

Hybrid work

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked a sharp shift to working from home and more flexible working arrangements across a wide variety of occupations. Hybrid work models, including working from home, may change or create new WHS risks that PCBUs need to manage. For example, flexibility in relation to when work is performed may increase time spent working. It may also impact on risk management processes and effective consultation, requiring PCBUs, worker representatives and Health and Safety Representatives (HSRs) to find new ways to engage with workers to identify and manage risks to health and safety.

Climate-related risks

A warming planet creates WHS risks. Heat, flooding and extreme weather events are increasingly likely to disrupt the normal operation of many businesses. In addition, new technologies and industries in decarbonisation and the circular economy are emerging, creating new roles. These changes create WHS issues — for example, workers could be exposed to hazardous materials if adequate controls are not implemented. Climate change, increasing urbanisation and proximity of humans and animals have also led to the emergence of novel infectious diseases and increased the transmission and spread of other diseases. PCBUs need to consider infectious diseases at work as ongoing hazards and ensure appropriate control measures are in place to manage the risks to workers and others at work.

More complex supply chains

The COVID-19 pandemic created unprecedented pressures on global supply chains. Trends that were identified prior to the pandemic, including increased consumer demand for a wider array of goods and services and business becoming increasingly international, were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic. The increased scope of global supply chains with more participants means that PCBUs must consider WHS risks more systematically and ensure there is clarity in relation to WHS duties and responsibility.

The impact of low frequency, high consequence events on supply chains within high hazard industries is also significant. This requires proactive responses to risks posed by high hazard industries and supply, for example in the case of the emerging hydrogen industry. PCBUs must consult, cooperate, and coordinate effectively across supply chains to ensure the protection of all workers.