Horizon scanning – future tripwires

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What risks lurk at the edge of our knowledge and imagination that could become tomorrow’s health and safety problems? Forewarned is forearmed, and due diligence suggests that we have a duty to find out, argues Jon Herbert.

What is horizon scanning?

Horizon scanning is the systematic examination of potential threats, opportunities and future developments close to the margins of current and future thinking with the aim of finding solutions.

One day, foresight will hopefully become valuable hindsight. No such luck then for a Western Union 1878 memo which stated, “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no use to us”. Digital pioneer, Ken Olsen, made a similar error in 1977, maintaining, “There is no way anyone would want a computer in their home.”

But good horizon scanning has rules, such as not searching for the result you want and being ready to question your own thinking. It’s not about prediction but creating scenarios. And it’s a thankless task because change worries people.

In the firing line

The Foresight Centre looks closely at many issues for the Health and Safety Executive (HSE). Its second report published in 2018 looks at wide-ranging issues but particularly UK energy generation, storage and use of energy, carbon dependency, energy supply and the changing consumption split between industry sectors. 

More widely, current issues are listed under six broad headings that could potentially impact health, safety and environment interests and responsibilities: energy topics, political, science and technology, socioeconomic and the workplace. The goal is to stimulate further thinking; material shared is for discussion only and does not necessarily reflect HSE policy or guidance. However, it certainly makes for interesting reading.

Future issues that could affect health and safety

The summaries below are only a brief taste of issues old and familiar, and new and futuristic.

Energy risks

Solar energy. Risks in the manufacture, installation, maintenance, disposal and recycling and transportation of solar devices as well as new and emerging chemicals and processes that could harm health.

Marine renewable energy. Risks as the sector expands during manufacture, construction and installation, use of specialised boats, diving, large equipment, laying of cables and maintenance.

Biomass. Increasing risks from wood collecting/forestry, high temperature and pressure pyrolysis (350–550°C) and gasification (over 700°C), recycling, potential fire or explosion risk, respiratory effects, biogas leaks, slurries/manures, fumes and microbiological exposure.

Wind energy. This involves issues such as working at height, slips, trips, moving machinery, electrocution, fire, high winds, plus large offshore waves, diving, heavy equipment, boat transfer, structural failure and lightning.

The hydrogen economy. High pressure gas storage, or as a cryogenic liquid, for fuel-cell use via the whole fuel chain — production, transportation, delivery — with additional high voltage and fire risks.

Methane gas hydrates (fire ice). Exploitation of deep-sea methane gas hydrate, or ice-lattice reserves is a challenging future technology and could create gas storage hazards.

Carbon dioxide capture and sequestration (CCS). Transporting bulk CO2 for long-term sub-sea storage has raised issues of metallurgical conditions, handling, compression and venting procedures.

Compressed air energy storage. Similar to CCS: pipeline and storage structure integrity, electrical and mechanical equipment, but with no hazardous toxic or asphyxiant properties.

Political risks

Impact of environmental and other legislation. Brexit could make this interesting. Largely EU and environmentally driven legislation affects workplace health and safety. Tackling environmental and human health protection issues holistically with new or modified guidance and control measures may be more environmentally friendly but could create new hazards. Given the breadth and rapid rate of expansion, proactive monitoring of existing and new legislation is needed to keep policy-makers aware. This approach is likely to continue.

Science and technology risks

Cyber security. Accidental failure or malicious attack on process control systems can compromise system-critical safety functions, with serious risks to operators and the public.

Gene therapy. Most gene therapy risks concern using infectious viruses as gene delivery systems with the potential of being spread to workers and the community. A review found the current regulatory framework for occupational health and safety is adequate for the technology at the moment.

Human performance enhancement (HPE). Nanotechnology, biotechnology, information and cognitive sciences convergence could create therapeutic and “augmentational” treatments — drugs enhancing attention, memory, wakefulness and improving sleep, plus pacemaker-like device wired into the brain to lift depression and overcome paralysis. Robotic exoskeletons are increasing human strength and endurance. Sight is being restored electronically. However, there will be ethical issues where measures are introduced to improve workplace performance. Mechanical and computer-assisted enhancements could also malfunction.

Molecular manufacturing. Nanoscale factories raise impact questions about biological systems and the use of potentially hazardous materials/processes by operators unfamiliar with risks and controls.

New and emerging pests. Forms of flora, fauna or diseases previously rare or unknown in the UK, could appear as a result of climate change, migration and transporting livestock and food products.

Pervasive computing (ambient intelligence). No health threat is currently proven from embedded computer systems improving human interaction using Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags, GPS systems and WiFi and longer range WiMax technologies. However, there is public concern.

Recycling. There are manual handling and known transport risks, plus hazardous materials issues around CRT-based monitors, lead, phosphor screens, cadmium, mercury (fluorescent lights), nickel, and polychlorinated biphenyls.

Sustainability. New manufacturing technologies, material and processes (green chemistry and high-pressure reactors) could create new risks and hazards.

Synthetic biology. Synthetic microorganisms developed by engineers, computer programmers, and mathematicians could reproduce, evolve and pose human health and the environmental risks that need new assessment methods, safety procedures and regulations.

Terahertz technology. Terahertz radiation (THz) between infrared and microwave in the electromagnetic spectrum is largely untapped but has considerable potential; its impacts are being investigated.

Socioeconomic risks

Generation Z. The new generation of workforce entrants has different characteristics, skills and attitudes and more awareness of their employment rights and wellbeing. Physical injuries may decline; psychosocial illnesses, plus, access to knowledge and information, are increasing. Workers are more independent, less tolerant and more likely to work alone. Attitudes to health and safety supervision, invasive regulation, implementation and inspection could change.

Globalisation. This is not a health and safety issue but drives health and safety impacts via low imported labour costs, skills, manufacturing capabilities, resources, plus, cheap transport. This affects the work/life balance. Other cultures and languages put extra psychosocial demands on workers in longer supply chains where worker/human rights are an issue linked to quality, authenticity and traceability. Trends change quickly and need to be anticipated.

Demographics. Employment patterns are moving over time from blue to white (and green) collar service sector jobs, more women and part-time employees, flexible working, teleworking, longer working lives, plus different health, safety and injury profiles.

Obesity. Could employers become responsible for encouraging/assisting staff at risk from obesity? A DWP/DH/HSE strategy Health, Work and Wellbeing —Caring for our Future said, “The workplace is a setting that should support healthy food choices for staff (and visitors).”

Virtual health and safety. No one is really going to get hurt doing virtual work, are they? Can a “haptic” interface enrich staff interaction? Does it help younger people to communicate? What are the physical injuries social and psychological effects of work in a metaverse? People may not behave as their normal selves online, with the potential for bullying and other unacceptable behaviour.

Workplace risks

Do keyboards have a future? Will we surf the web using only brainwaves? Many alternative ways of interacting with technology are emerging beyond the keyboard for different tasks. They can reduce risks with physical symptoms linked to computer uses such as typing. However, the impact of alternative devices is not yet clear and may need close monitoring — including musculoskeletal disorders and psychosocial factors.

Working practice changes. We are definitely seeing more of a move to precarious working with increased virtual working, homeworking, teleworking, part-time working, 24-hour working, and temporary or insecure work, which make it difficult to assess and manage risks to temporary, mobile and remote staff working non-standard hours who are less likely to report problems.

Complex ambiguous occupational health problems. As ”traditional” health problems decline — respiratory, hearing, skin problems — psychosocial issues with less clear biological causes are rising that vary with individual perception and complexity. The ageing workforce may present with a number of complex chronic conditions. Such issues may need a different approach and additional research on the effects of managerial/employer practices, plus training and education.

Genetic testing. Research is being funded into genetic susceptibility to chemical exposure. Genetic testing could identify people most at risk but exclude individual workers from employment, be used as an easier/cheaper way of reducing workplace exposures, and to discriminate against employees or job applicants.

Conclusion

Horizon scanning looks at far-reaching issues that could become serious occupational health and safety problems in the foreseeable — and unforeseeable — future. Fortunately for health and safety practitioners, the HSE has kept a rolling watch on evolving developments for more than a decade.

Equally importantly, horizon scanning can encourage “out of the box” thinking about risk and policies within organisations.

Last reviewed 17 January 2019

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