Technological and digital innovations in occupational health and safety

In the magazine article 'Environment & Safety at Work"of August 2023, the issue of the impacts that the technological and digital innovations are having on prevention and protection in the field of health and safety at work.

The article covers several topics, including an analysis on how AI works and the opportunities that the digital transition offers, reporting studies, standards and research on these issues.

According to research conducted by the Milan Polytechnic in 2022, 93% of Italians are aware, at least by hearsay, of Artificial Intelligence (AI), 55% claim to recognise AI as very present in their daily lives and only 37% claim to use it in their work.

At least once in recent years, most people have had to deal with machines or systems using AI as the most popular voice assistants Siri e Alexaor in e-commerce Amazon e Netflix. Many, however, make use of these tools while ignoring the functioning of the systems that support them, effectively increasing the level of "unconscious custody"in a risky way and without thinking about the consequences. This is done by providing personal data and thus information about oneself to digital platforms whose properties and purposes one does not know.

The various AI models are differentiated into two macro groups defined as a "expert system" and "machine learning". The former are based on the if-then logicaccording to which they produce effects following predetermined rules entered by the programmers. While the latter are also programmed with input, are able to continuously process data and thus produce effects by combining them, also exploiting previously stored and processed data. That of 'machine learning' is in fact a model that follows a the 'learning' process constantly evolving, self-feeding and self-regenerating.

With 'machine learning' they recognise the machine human-like skills and abilities. The system exploits and uses large amounts of constantly updated data and acquires combination modes (reasoning, learning, planning, creativity) that enable the AI itself, by means of algorithms, to understand the environment in which it operates and to produce targeted solutions to specific objectives.

Moreover, the latest evolutionary step that is already taking place, thanks to the refinement of learning models, is that from 'machine learning' to 'deep learning". The latter, through the use of artificial neural network systems, makes the comparison between machine and human mental processes increasingly subtle.

Artificial Intelligence - Machine Learning - Deep Learning

Against this fast-moving and constantly evolving backdrop of technological and digital innovations that achieve unimaginable results, theneed to regulate the process of technological development. In particular, Elon Musk and a thousand other subscribers called for and proposed an urgent six-month halt in the development of AI, arguing the need to reflect on and come to terms with the process of technological development in respect of which mankind already seems no longer able to control its consequences and its destructive power.

This is not intended to curb innovation, but at the same time technologies cannot be developed at the expense of people's rights. The transition that is taking place from Industry 4.0 to the next stage of Industry 5.0 brings with it the realisation that by exploiting what is made possible by the process of technological and digital innovation, the priority objective remains to emphasise the 'centrality of the person'.. Machines that have become and will become increasingly intelligent must in fact improve the lives of human beings, rather than create new forms of slavery and dependency.


It is therefore necessary to manage this change: objectives and paths have been set out, and actions outlined in order to develop an attitude of trust, in parallel with an awareness and knowledge of how technological innovation tools, particularly those using AI, operate. The goal of 'being able to trust' of these tools is to exploit the potential they express, as well as to seize the countless opportunities that arise from them.

The increasingly widespread use of AI has great potential that risks being thwarted, or even opposed, precisely because of a sense of fear and lack of trust of the people they interface with. Le fears most recurrent in people/workers are mainly two. The first given by the AI's ability to track daily habitssuch as workers' behaviour, and that the data collected are used in violation of privacy rights in order to carry out forms of individual or collective surveillance. The second by the fact that the data are used by the employer to observe and control workersbeing able to analyse and cross-reference infinite amounts of data in a very short time, reaching conclusions that can guide decisions, attitudes and consequences.

Fostering the development of an attitude of conscious trust must not, however, become a total reliance on technology, which could expose it to risks such as failure to ensure proper functioning and failure to respect rights such as freedom, dignity, safety, health and equality.

Further confirmation of these fears was found in a Survey conducted in 2022 by the Politecnico di Milano, targeting Employers and to Workers' Safety Representatives (RLS). The question posed in the Survey was about what the main barriers in the adoption of technological solutions; what emerged from both figures concerns:

  • the management complexity referring to the protection of privacy
  • the temptation to control on the performance of work
  • the conditioning in the performance of tasks
  • the lack of trust on guaranteed positivities

A framework of answers to be considered is also the question on the degree of knowledge and on the modes of operation of the most popular wearable and non-wearable technologies, consistently uniform responses between employers and RLS, which confirmed a low-medium level of knowledge.

In this regard, theEuropean Agreement on Digitalisationthrough which the European social partners undertook to try to:

  • maximising benefits digitisation
  • minimise disadvantages
  • outline a method for understanding the effects of digitisation
  • fostering trust towards the potential of digitisation

technological innovations

It is therefore now a question of 'managing change' in the new world of work characterised by green, digital and demographic transitions. An important contribution in this regard is provided by the document prepared for the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work Campaignin which there is an ongoing research project entitled 'OSH and digitisation overview 2020-2023'whose aim is to provide workplaces with information on the potential effects of digitisation on occupational health and safety, pointing out the advantages and dangers of introducing intelligent digital systems into the production process.

Assessments of such technologies cannot be limited to the certifications provided by manufacturers, but must also include the carrying out further device observations in the context of usetaking into account the effects they may have on the work for which they are used.

Following these innovations, it becomes necessary to formulate some cardinal rules. In the field of occupational health and safety, a number of them have been identified since the 1970s, contained in the Workers' Statute. Today it is still this text, albeit more than fifty years old, that we must look to for rules related to technological and digital innovations in the workplace, particularly in favour of the prevention of operators.

However, in light of the technological-digital modernisation of the constantly and rapidly changing labour market, there is a need for workers' organisations to be called upon to acquire specific knowledge about the innovative tools available to them, and about the implications and effects that a possible installation could have.


In conclusion, the technology and the science have always moved with the times and accelerated the processes of modernisation and evolution, but often failing to find harmony and approval.

What's new in Industry 5.0 consists of preserving and strengthening the human-centred evolved version, following the necessary ability to seize the opportunities that the digital transition offers and will offer, trying to break down the barriers that have been created in the relationship between users and innovations.

"Managing change in favour of continuous improvement, starting with prevention, must therefore represent the correct approach.


Before leaving...

Leave us your contact details and we will contact you back for a free consultation