Understanding the evolving nature of occupational safety and healthin the age of automation
-Soumya Jha & Ulka Bhattacharyya†
India has been propelled towards a novel work environment with increased automation across industries. As per NASSCOM, while industry consensus earlier was to resist automation, the Covid-19 pandemic (pandemic) has compelled its implementation to counter the challenges posed by pandemic-related lockdowns. As per predictions, disruption caused by pandemic-induced lockdowns will lead to more technological innovation by companies, transforming tasks, jobs, and skills as early as 2025. In India, doubling the number of industrial robots installed in factories in the past five years is a testament to that. A 2021 estimate identifies India as one of the countries in the APAC region that requires better preparation for the advent of automation.
This unprecedented expansion of the use of automation in industries, and its increased engagement with human workers, may have several implications, some of which we may potentially be unaware of. Crucially, these could include aspects of automation that are injury-related, as well as broader psychosocial outcomes arising from human-robot collaborations. The ILO throws light on these potential risks associated with ergonomic, psychosocial and physical-injury concerns.
While considering India’s broader automation regulatory framework, this article looks into the future, highlighting the need for a specialized framework on occupational safety and health (OSH). This futuristic outlook is necessary to address particularly the unique OSH challenges posed by the growing adoption of automation in a post-pandemic world. In this context, this article discusses how a regulatory framework catering to rapid technological advancements could be put in place for industry, to specifically tackle such OSH concerns.
The closest point of reference for discussing such a framework may be the recently enacted Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code, 2020 (Code), which consolidates laws regulating OSH for individuals employed in ‘establishments’. Establishments are defined under the Code as essentially factories and manufacturing industries, amongst others. The article also looks into examples of OSH-focused automation frameworks in different jurisdictions and considers how they can eventually influence similar frameworks being developed in India.
Automation, robotics and ensuing OSH concerns
The International Society of Automation defines “automation” as the creation and application of technology to monitor and control the production and delivery of products and services. Automation involves a very broad range of technologies, including robotics and expert systems, telemetry and communications, electro-optics, cybersecurity, process measurement and control etc. However, of all automation technologies, perhaps the most enduring place has been reserved for robotics. Originally a term appearing in the science-fiction play, “R.U.R.” (1920), today, robots refer to machines programmable by algorithms to perform simple and complex tasks and modify tasks in response to changes in their external environment. Robots have acquired increasing complexity over time, and as their interaction with human workers intensifies, additional concerns are bound to arise.
While automation and robotics are likely to have wide-ranging effects on the world of work, its OSH dimensions are particularly relevant. Essentially, two issues stand out.
First, the changing structure and organization of work and employment due to globalisation and market liberalism has created new challenges for the protection of labour rights, including OSH. The traditional “workplace” where OSH laws apply is becoming fluid, with work-related hazards and risks extending beyond physical spaces. The rise of the “work from home” phenomenon the world-over due to the pandemic, is a recent example of this, whereby automation has sped up, causing OSH concerns to emerge beyond the traditional workplace.
In light of the changing structure and organization of work and employment there has been an increase in outsourcing and supply chain relations. The International Labour Organization (ILO) observes that the existence of global supply chains coupled with dangers of the pandemic places workers at higher risk. This necessitates “global perspectives and better understandings of the interrelationship between the physical science and engineering of safe work and the medical understandings of disease and injuries…”.
Second, human-robot interactions will increase substantially in the coming years, a phenomenon having its own OSH implications, owing to humans and robots working in proximity. This is the specific point under consideration in this article.
The Bigger Picture: How does India fare?
While speaking of a broader automation regulatory framework, it is important to consider that such frameworks are necessarily complex and multi-faceted – they encompass multiple aspects, including regulation safety, process safety and product safety. Thus, an interaction of multiple supporting frameworks (of which OSH-focused frameworks are a part), when discussing this broader framework, is inevitable.
Although discussing all these supporting frameworks is beyond this article’s scope, it is important to note some overall concerns. Notably, India currently lacks a dedicated industrial automation regulatory framework. This is unlike other countries which have already developed impressive frameworks on robotics and industrial automation. For instance, Japan has embarked on a “Robotics Revolution”, and South Korea, has had a dedicated, intelligent robot law since 2008. Therefore, thinking about creating such a framework proactively, catering to India’s unique concerns is important, especially because smart factories, populated by industrial robots, may become an important part of what shop floors in India may soon look like.
Moreover, as the adoption of automation picks up in India, a need to consider specialized regulatory frameworks may arise. These include those dealing with potentially dangerous machinery, as well as industrial automation and robotics. On the former, regulatory models such as those under the Boilers Act, 1923 and the (now repealed) Dangerous Machinery Regulation Act, 1983, have existed. Though not dealing with industrial automation directly, examining these allied regulatory models may assist in formulating a dedicated industrial automation regulatory framework in India. Additionally, industrial automation and robotics standards issued by the International Standards Organisation (ISO) and the Bureau of Indian Standards (BIS), may also require consideration and possibly, further updation in this process.
Additionally, a major upcoming initiative on automation is the discussions commenced by the NITI Aayog on the direction and adoption of the broader theme of Artificial Intelligence (AI). Hopefully, this will be a start for further research and analysis and the eventual development of a dedicated regulatory framework addressing multiple aspects of automation and allied technologies, including those specific to OSH.
Addressing automation’s OSH-specific challenges
The global picture
There has been an active interest globally in developing regulatory frameworks on automation, generally, and associated OSH concerns, specifically. Certain jurisdictions have been deliberating the development of legal standards and amending existing legislation to account for emerging applications of advanced technologies.
On OSH specifically, the United States of America (America), ahead of the curve, developed Guidelines for Robotics Safety in 1987. These guidelines disseminate instructions and training regarding robot safety at manufacturing workplaces to compliance officers, employers and employees, as “industrial robots can be used to perform hazardous tasks, but in doing so they can create new hazards”. Further, the American Labour Department’s administrative-wing, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), has also developed a Technical Manual on workplace hazards, specifically delineating information on Industrial Robots and Robot System Safety. This manual discusses the types of robotic accidents that can endanger humans working in proximity with robots, as well as the expected hazards humans may be susceptible to, considering continuous engagement with robots.
Further, the European Union, as part of the European Pillar of Social Rights action-plan has released the 2021-2027 OSH framework. This framework sets out key priorities for workers’ health and safety in a post-pandemic world, including revising the EU Machinery Directive, which “addresses risks deriving from digitalizationand the use of machinery that are also relevant to workers’ health and safety”.
Possible policy changes in India
On lines similar to America’s OSHA, the Ministry of Labour and Employment may establish a dedicated administrative wing to address OSH concerns pertaining to automation. This body may develop automation and robotics manuals and guidelines and conduct training workshops for establishments, employers and workers to equip them with requisite skills.
In this respect, the National Occupational Safety and Health Advisory Board (Board) and similar state-level boards proposed under the Code may mandate industry compliance with such manuals and guidelines on automation and robotics safety. The Board may further mandate establishments, employers and workers completing a stipulated number of hours of automation and robotics training conducted by the Ministry.
Further, the existing National Policy on Safety, Health and Environment at the Workplace (2009) may be updated to reflect that the increased use of automation and robotics may pose novel concerns. The Policy in its current form recognizes that safe working conditions positively impact productivity and economic development and provides a framework for eliminating work-related injuries. Therefore, its updation to meet emergent concerns posed by automation would only be appropriate.
The Code can act as a catalyst for creating a dedicated law
It is important to understand that the Code defines as “establishment” the sectors that are predicted to be most affected globally by the increased adoption of automation. These sectors include manufacturing, motor transport, factories and mines. Jobs in these sectors require low skills, are repetitive, and therefore, most amenable to collaboration with robots. Therefore, it is imperative that discussions on developing an OSH law addressing emergent issues pertaining to such automation commence soon. Accordingly, we discuss some OSH concepts within the purview of the Code that may be considered for framing a potential law on the subject.
(i) The import of “Hazardous Processes” and “Dangerous Operations”
The Code primarily necessitates OSH Standards to ensure the safety and well-being of employees in the face of dangers they may be potentially exposed to when working. Under the Code, “dangerous operations” imply specified manufacturing processes or operations (so declared by the appropriate government) which may expose workers to the risks of bodily injury or disease (s. 82 of the Code). Parallelly, “hazardous processes” refers to certain industrial processes or activities in scheduled industries which may potentially impair the health of engaged individuals or pollute the environment (s. 2(za) of the Code, read with the First Schedule).
Therefore, dangerous operations andhazardous processes are based on conventional, industrial activity prior to the advent of modern technological advancements in automation and robotics. This genesis is likely a legacy of the Factories Act (the Code’s predecessor) which construed dangerous operations and hazardous processes similarly. This restrictive view of both hazardous process and dangerous operation may be natural seven decades ago considering the then prevalent mode of industrial activity, where the current, expansive understanding of automation and robotics was not commonplace.
Consequently, the understanding of both “hazard” and “dangerous operation” requires an expansion. Thus, the potential law could expansively view both ‘dangerous operations’ and ‘hazardous processes’, to incorporate specific health and safety issues that are likely to arise as industrial activity increasingly involves automation and robotics.
Further, the Code requires that additional safety measures be taken for industries involved in hazardous processes; for instance, employing safety officers in factories, drawing up health and safety policies for workers, as well as preparing on-site emergency plans. The Code also mandates the appointment of specially trained persons competent in supervising and handling hazardous substances and providing necessary facilities for protecting workers. The deployment of safety officers and automation trained personnel, as well as those officers who draw up health and safety policies and contingency plans, may be carried out under such potential law. Such officers and personnel may also be mandatorily provided requisite practical and theoretical training, to be applied with expertise, on the field.
(ii) The import of “Occupational Diseases”
Occupational diseases likely to be caused by automation pose imminent danger to humans, in the form of ergonomic risks through new and increased machine-human interface, extended exposure to electromagnetic fields, and new and unknown psychosocial risks. Similar to the Code, occupational injuries and diseases caused by automation may be listed under a Schedule of this potential law. This Schedule may include diseases that are both physical and psychosocial in nature emanating from the engagement with automation.
Under the Code, it is the employer’s duty to “ensure that (the) workplace is free from hazards which cause or are likely to cause injury or occupational disease to the employees”. The potential law may require a hazard-free workplace in a manner analogous to the Code.
(iii) Psychosocial risks
Psychosocial risk, specifically, is an important and urgent concern in the context of increased use of automation.
This concern is two-fold; First, alarming predictions on job replacements caused by automation, as discussed, imply a potential loss of jobs, which is likely to cause depression and anxiety among most. Further, the extended period spent anticipating job loss, and chronic job insecurity have been associated with increased neuroticism and decreased agreeableness and conscientiousness. Second, working in a highly automated environment is likely to cause feelings of isolation and loneliness due to intensive worker-robot collaborations and fewer human interactions.
For guidance on developing a framework for establishments to tackle psychosocial risks attributed to automation, the potential law may refer to some pointers provided by the ILO. These include, (i) integration of psychosocial risks in risk assessments as part of OSH management systems, to develop targeted prevention and hazard management strategies, interventions and evaluations; (ii) understanding the dynamics of antecedents of stress (unhealthy work stressors) and the antecedents of well-being, at the workplace; (iii) understanding the correlation between psychosocial risks at work and their effect on the physical health of workers, including cardiovascular diseases and musculoskeletal diseases, hypertension, gastrointestinal disorders and mental health disorders (burnout/depression); and, (iv) understanding the correlation of excessive working hours and sedentary work with physical health effects on workers.
Such a law, apart from providing guidance to employers on framing preventive and risk-mitigating policies on OSH (both physical and mental), may also lay down a set of rules/guidelines informing the framing of policy/procedure by employers to actively address employee grievances pertaining to psychosocial harm or injury claimed during the course of work.
As the adoption and use of automation and robotics picks up in India, especially post-pandemic, OSH aspects as we highlight, may require consideration. This is important so that the government, employers and workers can sufficiently equip themselves in advance, and be prepared for intensified adoption of automation.
India, to this day, continues to struggle with fundamental issues like unemployment, the migrant-worker crisis, low wages and lack of social security for workers. While the government paves a steady path on these concerns, automation is also a reality that cannot be ignored, nor sidelined, more so given the rate at which it is fast outpacing manual forms of work globally. This discussion has further become all the more important and timelier now, given how the pandemic has necessitated the adoption of automation in India by leaps and bounds.
Accordingly, challenges posed by automation are to arise as well, and drastically. Therefore, creating necessary regulatory frameworks in advance is in order to address the disruption that is likely to ensue. As we have pointed out, any framework to address the challenges brought about by the advent of automation and robotics will necessarily be multi-faceted of which OSH concerns will play an important role. This shall indeed serve the interests of all stakeholders concerned.
†Soumya and Ulka are Research Fellows at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co, New Delhi, India. They would like to thank Ms Pooja Ramchandani, Ms Radhika Dudhat Pereira and Mr Siddharth Nair, Partners at Shardul Amarchand Mangaldas & Co, New Delhi, for their insightful comments on previous drafts. All views expressed are personal.