Thesis 3: Health and Safety Risk Assessments Enable the Design of Work That Has Undergone Digital Transformation

Risk assessment is a process designed to prevent occupational safety and health risks. In work systems affected by digital transformation, the emphasis shifts to the assessment of mental stress. This opens up the opportunity to identify and harness resources over and above the risk-oriented approach which is generally taken at present (Borg 2017; Borg et al. 2018). The risk assessment covers the entire work system. In the digital world of work in particular, specific procedural concepts, based on systemic thinking, must be developed for the holistic risk assessment that has been required for years in the work sciences. This requires greater dynamism in the procedure, achieved by altering the intensity, the methodology, and the prospective reach. Relevance is ideally guaranteed with iterative processes based on participation. Relationships between opportunities and risks, stressors and resources can be evaluated in this way, culminating in continuously evaluated measures. One challenge is the integrated assessment of different physical and mental stressors (GDA 2014).

A risk assessment of work-related mental stress is a legal requirement in many countries (SLIC 2012; e.g., BMAS 2013 for Germany). The effect of work on people is usually described by the Stress-Strain Concept (Rohmert and Rutefranz 1975). Work-related mental stress is defined as the “total of all assessable influences impinging upon a human being from external sources and affecting it mentally” (ISO 2017). Stress is therefore any form of influence of work which can create an effect in the human organism. Strain is the “immediate effect of mental stress within the individual” (ibid.). Stress should be understood as value-neutral. It can have positive impacts (consequences of mental strain) such as stimulating and coaching effects, as well as negative impacts such as a feeling of monotony, and it can contribute to mental exhaustion and stress responses, or to the development of mental disorders over the long term (ibid.).

The Stress-Strain Concept is used in an assessment of working conditions, in particular to analyze the mental work stress. However, it is better suited to the retrospective assessment of working conditions, as it is based on defined, scientifically confirmed stressors. Yet digital transformation is characterized by a large number of influencing factors which are constantly changing and reconfiguring, and which cannot be identified fully or in advance. The question is how to find assessment and design processes that can help to humanize work even though the configuration of stressors is just beginning to emerge.

One option is to examine the current interactions between people and the work system. This means that an assessment of work in which the strain consequences are as yet unknown or unexplored is only possible for a specific period in specific workplaces. The participation of those affected is a good opportunity to make up for the lack of empirical knowledge in the work sciences, while increasingly empowering workers by giving them responsibility to shape their own world of work.

With reference to digital transformation, the consequences for the risk assessment are as follows:

  • • New stressors caused by digital transformation must be taken into account in the content lists of the risk assessment (Diebig et al. 2018). This primarily applies to psychosocial and ergonomic stressors. The risk assessment of mental stress is becoming vitally important for knowledge workplaces.
  • • With the health sciences unable to give us reliable insights into the new “digital” forms of stress, participation in the risk assessment process is a way of identifying relevant negative stressors and developing practical countermeasures. Participation goes hand in hand with a different understanding of leadership and a change of culture in the organization. In this context, increasing account must also be taken of the international make-up of workers (Diebig et al 2018; see Yorio et al., Chapter 6 in this book).
  • • ISO 6385 (2016) and part 2 of ISO 10075-2 (1996) (ISO 2017a) state that technical, organizational, and human factors, and the interactions between them, must be considered in the design of work systems. This inclusion in the context of a holistic risk assessment of working conditions must be pinned down conceptually and methodologically.
  • • The procedures or instruments used for risk assessment must cover all work locations in which workers are active in work systems that have undergone digital transformation (Diebig et al. 2018).
  • • The risk assessment process must be made more dynamic. The common practice of ascertaining mental stress at two- or three-year intervals no longer appears to be appropriate bearing in mind the accelerating changes taking place in work systems undergoing digital transformation (Diebig et al. 2018). In future, the working conditions will ideally be analyzed and designed at any time, even in real time, through the use of new information sources from intelligent work environments, with those involved given greater autonomy and design competency.


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