John Howard: Workplaces in The Future Could Look Very Different

Liz Carey

Cambridge, MA (WorkersCompensation.com) – Workplaces post-COVID-19 could look very different, according to John Howard, director of the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Howard was the concluding speaker at the Workers Compensation Research Institute’s virtual Annual Issues and Research Conference recently.

Post-COVID workplaces will need to accommodate the same guidelines needed during COVID, he said, primarily hand-washing, masking and social distancing. But employers also need to think about better ventilation systems to ensure air-borne droplets of the virus do not pass from employee to employee.

“The proximity of workers to each other is going to be number one, number two and number three in importance in the workplace,” Howard said. “Once your employees are closer to each other, you’re going to have to start looking at your ventilation system.”

Lay-outs of future office space could also include barriers and fewer public spaces, in an effort to maintain distances between employees.

But, he said, some employees will continue to work from home, bringing up another set of problems when it comes to cumulative trauma disorder. He predicted that there would be an increase in those types of injuries.

“With this sudden pivot to remote work, employers did not have the ability to say ‘Here are my rules if you want to work at home,’” he said. “The home is not as conducive to the work environment. Workers are going to have to think about designing work space at home with no help.”

For those employers whose employees are coming into the workspace, a new challenge will face them: infection control.

“Employers are going to have to pay more attention than ever to infection control. And that’s going to be a real challenge for those businesses in the non-healthcare setting,” he said.

The Technology Effect

A trend toward automation in manufacturing and other industries could either be very good for workplace injuries, he said, or very bad.

“If automation replaces a worker completely, I think we’ll see a decrease in the amount of injuries,” he said. “But if a robot is working alongside a worker, such as a collaborative robot working in close proximity to humans, without a stop feature that senses a human, we’ll have greater risk of harm to humans.”

However, the drawback of automation and robots replacing humans then becomes an economic one. When machines replace humans and take away their jobs, the lack of employment creates a technological job displacement.

NIOSH is working on a vision of workplaces, work and the workforce of the future, he said, and creating scenarios of several different circumstances in order to be prepared for whatever the future may hold.

“One of the issues we’re getting into with this initiative is, how do you predict the future? How do you prepare for it? How do you even know it’s coming?” he said. “That’s the issue of strategic foresight, creating scenarios of various futures so you’re prepared for whatever comes.”

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