Labour Research July 2018


Health, safety and automation

How can unions resist moves in some sectors towards increased pressures on workers through the use of a range of new technologies?

Most of the recent focus on the impact of automation has been on the potentially devastating job losses resulting from the latest technological and digital revolution, dubbed Industry 4.0. 

With some studies predicting that as many as 30% of current UK jobs could be lost to automation and digitalisation by 2030, this is understandable. 

But as public services union UNISON points out, automation is not just about the number of jobs. The impact of new technology “can spin off into almost every aspect of an employee’s terms and conditions”, including health and safety.

Automation and new technologies have the potential to massively improve health and safety by reducing the physical stresses and strains and repetitive work that cause so many work-related musculoskeletal disorders. 

They also have the potential to improve work-life balance by allowing more flexibility in the location of work and therefore cutting down on travel time, for example. The TUC’s September 2017 Shaping the future report says robots and forms of artificial intelligence can minimise dangerous, boring and unrewarding work.

But a new Scottish TUC (STUC) survey of almost 100 trade union branches suggests the way many employers are currently introducing automation and new technologies is, instead, having a negative impact on health and safety and work-life balance. 

The April 2018 STUC and Scottish government report, Technological change and the Scottish labour market, for which the STUC also gathered information from senior trade union officials, sets out the results of the survey. 

Over three-quarters (76%) of branches responding identified examples of automation and digitisation — a term used to describe developments including artificial intelligence, advanced robotics and 3D printing — in their workplace. 

Although they could see the potential benefits, the STUC found that branches generally saw these developments as presenting problems. Around 20% of branches in the survey reported a health and safety impact with around one in five of these reporting a negative effect, compared to just 3% reporting an improvement in health and safety. 

“There was a real mismatch between some of the comments depending on who you were talking to,” STUC assistant general secretary and report author Helen Martin told Labour Research. 

“Branches were more negative than senior, strategic-level union officials who believe automation can really improve health and safety if done properly.” She found workers on the ground were experiencing a range of health and safety problems as a result of automation and technological change.

Negative impacts

“Performance management is a big issue when it comes to automation,” she said. “There is the ability to scrutinise everything a worker is doing.” In call centres, for example, everything can be timed. “On call-time is monitored, workers can’t take toilet breaks, and they are expected to take calls at the end of the shift but there is no paid overtime,” she added. “Every action is monitored and scrutinised to the second in favour of the employer.”

Evidence provided to the STUC by the CWU communications union also suggests that rather than being job-enhancing through the removal of boring and repetitive work, the reality experienced by many call centre workers is that automation is reducing the variety of their work and actually making it more repetitive.

While chatbots (computer programmes that mimic conversation with people) and other automating tools should, in theory, reduce the number of simple and routine enquiries call handlers deal with, thereby providing the scope for more interesting and varied work, the CWU evidence suggests the opposite is true. 

Comments included: “Automated scripts reduce any personal input or decision making”; “Lack of flexibility and personal judgement reducing variety of roles”; and “Job roles are more generalised and deskilled”.

The STUC report also describes how automation allows employers to track the whereabouts of staff and their work rate, creating “a sense of powerlessness or loss of control for workers” and driving “an unhelpful and inappropriate targets culture”. In the distribution sector, for example, some electronic picking systems put workers under pressure to reach unrealistic targets, with threats of financial or disciplinary sanctions.

According to Doug Russell, health and safety officer for the Usdaw retail union, some online retailers have even developed motion sensors that can tell workers they “aren’t picking in the right way”. Russell says that while these could be used to benefit health and safety — by, for example, identifying and eliminating excessive stooping or stretching — they are instead being introduced in fulfilment centres (packing warehouses) to maximise efficiency.

Usdaw research submitted to the STUC also highlights a high degree of automation behind the scheduling of shifts in supermarkets and the problems caused by “management by algorithm”. 

This allows employers to fit workers’ hours around the peaks and troughs of customer demand. But for the workers it means hours changing from week to week and very short shifts, sometimes forcing them to spend as much time travelling to and from work as they do completing their shift. 

“The uncertainty, and not having enough hours and not earning enough money, contributes to stress,” said Russell. And this is where people are employees rather than being deemed “self-employed” by the employer. “The situation is much worse for workers in the gig economy where they are slaves to the algorithm and completely working to demand,” Russell added.

The STUC also found increased levels of workplace stress, as well as lower quality services, as a result of automation “being pursued primarily as a cost-cutting measure”, with under-investment in technology and systems that are not fit for purpose. 

Across the public sector, for example, there were many examples suggesting workloads had risen as a result of automation, “with background support around HR or finance cut back, and individual workers now responsible for updating systems and inputting data in addition to their normal workloads”.

In its Bargaining over automation guide, UNISON reports there are numerous examples of how employers can use the possibilities opened up by technology to intensify pressures. These include tracking the time a call centre operator spends responding to calls, and using this information to set a minimum number of call responses per hour. This then feeds into performance-related pay systems. 

While a greater ability to balance home and work commitments through flexible working, homeworking and working in a range of locations is identified by academic literature as a positive feature of automation and digitalisation, the STUC found the reality did not always live up to the theory. 

It says one union identified the blurring of the lines between work and home life as a particular issue for younger workers “who often feel a greater pressure to be available to their employer at all times”. 

UNISON says automated systems can generate work practices that “intrude deeper into employees’ private lives and leave workers feeling unable to ‘switch off’ outside of their contracted hours”.

And in research carried out by the Unite general union (see below), one group of drivers reported that when their employer wanted to introduce inward-facing cameras into their cabs in the name of health and safety — claiming it would ensure drivers were not becoming drowsy — they rejected them as they found they were too intrusive and were really a tool for monitoring and surveillance. 

In another example, the introduction of more high-tech automated lines for packing and stacking ended up being slower and actually resulted in more, not less, manual handling being required to speed things up than the less high-tech processes they had replaced.

Overall, according to Martin, the STUC research identified “a real impact on health and wellbeing, and an increase in stress and inappropriate use of targets for the performance management of workers”.

Potential benefits

Yet there are potential health and safety benefits to be gained from automation. According to Unite executive officer Sharon Graham, the main issue is that “work must remain a central pillar of society. So efficiencies from automation, including any health and safety gains, must not become an excuse for job losses. 

“Stewards and reps must get information on any potential health and safety benefits as well as potentially negative impacts from employers at the earliest stage possible. This is the only way to make sure that technology is having a positive outcome for workers”.

Graham leads on Unite’s Broad Industrial Strategy. As part of this work, she is directing in-depth research looking at the wider impacts of automation and new technologies on Unite members and developing proposals for “a workers’ manifesto for the 21st century workplace”. 

Following her department’s 2016 report on the impact of automation on the number of jobs, The threat of automation, she is now consulting across the whole union, talking to officers, organisers and senior lay activists in the union’s 19 sectors, 10 regions and four national equalities committees to discuss their experiences of the introduction of automation and new technologies and how Unite should respond to the potential opportunities and threats posed. The outcomes of this work are due to be published later this year. 

On health and safety, Unite representatives have told her that automation and new technologies have had both positive and negative results. For example, in the road transport sector they say cameras and sensors have massively improved safety, helping to prevent people being knocked down, particularly at night. 

Usdaw’s Doug Russell says that in logistics there are examples of employers using wearable technology to educate drivers about the massive forces involved in jumping down from wagons, putting pressure on, and causing damage to, the knees and other joints. 

In food production, some employers are showing interest in the use of wearable exoskeletons to reduce physical strain and prevent musculoskeletal disorders (see box this page).

“On health and safety, the message from stewards is that when employers claim that new technology will improve working conditions it can be a double-edged sword,” said Russell. 

And he said that stewards and reps need proper information on any negative impacts before new technology is introduced. “One of the key things is to have a new technology agreement in place.”

Helen Martin of the STUC agrees that union consultation and bargaining is vital. “It’s really important that unions continue to see automation as something they can legitimately bargain around,” she said. “Union-negotiated agreements often lead to better outcomes for workers and the employer. Unions can offer employers an understanding of how automation will affect workers on an everyday level, the problems that may arise and how to do things more effectively.”

A recent European Trade Union Institute report, The future of work in the digital era, describes several examples where employers in the Netherlands and France, for example, are introducing cutting-edge technologies including “vision picking” in logistics and the development of wearable exoskeletons in transport. 

Lessons from Europe 

The European Trade Union Institute’s health and safety magazine, HesaMag, recently included a special report on The future of work in the digital era. This included a report of a trial of “vision picking” (see main text) at two DHL distribution centres in the Netherlands. 

The trial will run until March 2019 and involves the works council as well as the Netherlands Trade Union Confederation. 

The works council negotiated a set of conditions including three-monthly joint works council and management evaluations; no loss of permanent jobs during the trial; participation on a voluntary basis; and a maximum of six hours per day of vision picking with breaks and independent medical support. 

A second report looked at the development of wearable exoskeletons that aim to reduce musculoskeletal disorders among workers carrying out awkward and strenuous manual handling tasks. 

Such tasks include sanding ceilings in the construction industry or working on the underside of vehicles in the automotive industry. 

It describes the development of an exoskeleton model by the French state railway company SNCF where a multi-disciplinary project team includes trade unions.

Logistics company DHL Supply Chain explains that “vision picking” in warehouses involves wearing smart glasses providing visual displays of order picking instructions along with information on where items are located and where they need to be placed, freeing pickers’ hands of paper instructions. 

It says this allows them to work more efficiently and comfortably. In these examples there is trade union involvement from the very earliest stage (see box this page). 

But evidence from a recent UNISON survey suggests this is not happening in the UK. Just 17% of branches had been consulted over the introduction of automation. And only 8% of branches reported that the employer had consulted with service users when introducing automation. 

Negotiating guidance

Several unions, including UNISON, have produced new negotiating guidance for their branches which includes advice on health and safety. 

Unison bargaining guide 

Public services union Unison’s Bargaining over automation guide includes model safeguards for resisting intensified pressures on staff. 

In summary, this says that the parties to the agreement recognise that the impact of automating technology on the workforce needs to be assessed in terms of the duties imposed by the 1974 Health and Safety at Work Act requiring protection of the health, safety and welfare of employees, as well as the requirements of the 1999 Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations. 

The Regulations require employers to carry out risk assessments, ensuring hazards are removed or proper control measures put in place to reduce the risks, so far as is reasonably practicable.

A risk assessment of the proposals will therefore be carried out, using the Health and Safety Executive Stress Management Standards, regular reviews of the risks will be agreed as appropriate, and trade union safety representatives will be consulted throughout these assessments.

Particular attention will be paid to ensuring that any automated tracking of work and setting of work rates will be balanced against the health and wellbeing of the workforce.

Automation will not be allowed to infringe workers’ “right to disconnect” from work demands conveyed through technology outside contracted working hours or when officially on-call; and automation will not be utilised to expand the use of insecure contracts.

Unite has also produced a draft model new technology agreement which includes a detailed clause on health and safety.

“It’s very important to be prepared and to have a framework for negotiating around new technology,” said Graham. That goes for health and safety as well as other areas.” 

“The key is to ensure that stewards and reps are informed early on and to make sure that members are strong enough to push back when required.”

Russell says Usdaw’s research found its members were quite positive and keen to adopt new technologies as long as they are not thrust upon them because of a lack of consultation.

“Technology has the potential to be used for good or bad,” he told Labour Research. “Usdaw members are not opposed to the introduction of new technology, but they need to be involved, consulted, have some influence and be listened to.”