The 50th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act is an opportunity to look back, and see how far safety has advanced in 50 years. It’s difficult to imagine a time in living memory when there were no health and safety protections for workers in many industries, and where there was little liability for employers exposing their employees to deadly risks.

What’s perhaps more interesting though is to imagine where health and safety will be in another 50 years. Just as the landscape of work in the UK looked very different in the 20th century to today, the workplaces of 2074 are likely to pose very different challenges – and require new rules and guidelines to protect people’s physical and mental wellbeing.

Mental health will dominate

Mental health is an area of workplace health and safety that’s still very much under development. While a large number of organisations have made changes such as more flexible working arrangements and the appointment of mental health champions, this is ad-hoc and often intangible, making little impact on the growing number of people with mental health conditions. At the same time, some organisations are pushing back on flexible working and initiatives such as Equality, Diversity & Inclusion (EDI) training, which is designed to reduce tensions resulting from cultural differences, all of which can worsen mental health.

This is all happening at a time when mental health is becoming a more serious societal threat. Mental health conditions such as anxiety and depression are increasing at an alarming rate, particularly among young people. Various factors have been blamed, including hopelessness at the ongoing climate crisis, geopolitical crises and wars, the cost-of-living crisis, social media, a lack of accessible treatment pathways, and environmental factors such as air pollution, pesticides, microplastics, and other pollutants. Whatever the cause, mental health is perhaps the world’s greatest healthcare crisis, and one that will inevitably affect the world of work more over the next 50 years.

Effective action on mental health will have to come from governments more than businesses. However, it seems inevitable that businesses will also have to shoulder some of this burden in order to support employees, and harness the benefits of a happier and more productive workforce. This is likely to start with a broader acceptance of the need for employees to take time off where necessary, and not ‘power through’ when they are not fit to work. The Australian concept of ‘duvet days’ is one solution to this, where employees have a set number of days leave that they can take without prior notice. More broadly, though, it will require a climate of greater acceptance, where employees feel they can be transparent with their employers about their mental health without it negatively affecting their careers.

By 2074, it’s likely that much of this will have been figured out. The rise of automation (something we’ll explore later in this piece) may mean that the amount of work people are required to do is reduced, with wages being supplemented by some form of universal income. In this case, the reduced pressure of working and additional free time may help to alleviate some mental health issues, and give people the time and financial certainty they need to seek therapy, take up new hobbies, and otherwise improve their mental health. A greater societal acceptance will also help more people to open up, and not to feel like their mental health conditions are a burden they need to carry, or something they are embarrassed to disclose and talk about. This may need to be precipitated by some legislation enshrining a right to good mental health, and putting a greater onus on employers to create an environment that both mitigates these issues and helps people to improve them.

Automation will remove some risks (and add new ones)

Automation has been an impending threat in some senses since the 1950s, when machine automation was first introduced into manufacturing. Ever since then, the progression of technology – and particularly computers – has brought concerns that the machines may one day replace us. This rhetoric has transferred from science fiction to the mainstream in recent years, with technologies such as automated cars, robotics, and AI all increasing the concern that automation may lead to widespread job losses, and change the fabric of modern society.

We’re already seeing some of the ramifications of automation on health and safety. The progress of self-driving vehicles has been halted after a series of major accidents led to funding being pulled back across the sector, including 22 collisions by Google’s Waymo vehicles, which are now being investigated by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). While some of these kinks will inevitably be ironed out as time progresses, the integration of automation is likely to bring some risks that we will simply have to be aware of and deal with constructively.

Sensors and advanced algorithms are already being used to try and prevent collisions, but it’s unlikely that these will ever be foolproof. Signal outages, blocked sensors, software errors, mechanical faults, and other issues will inevitably lead to safeguards being compromised, and people’s safety being put at risk. In a workplace environment, this is likely to mean a risk of collisions by autonomous vehicles with people and property, including warehouse racking, which could lead to an increase in racking collapses. This will necessitate both careful traffic management and awareness, and an increased onus on inspections to spot damage caused by collisions early, and stop it from escalating.

Working patterns will continue to change

The most lasting impact of the coronavirus pandemic on workplaces has been the switch to remote working. A small but growing trend prior to the lockdowns became standard practice for many businesses, where employees were forced to work from home. While some organisations have pushed to return more employees to the office, remote working is clearly here to stay, with employees both seeing the benefits of working at home, and realising that it usually does not negatively impact their work.

This switch is likely to see a much deeper focus on safety as it applies to remote working. Employers are already responsible for certain aspects of health and safety for employees when working remotely, such as adherence to display screen equipment (DSE) regulations. However, the application and enforcement of these laws is spotty, and other safety hazards may exist around the home as a direct result of the work someone is doing, such as the presence of computer equipment or other tools. In most cases, nothing is currently done to accommodate for this.

In future, it’s likely that businesses will need to be much more involved in how remote workers are provisioned and kept safe outside the workplace. There will be a careful balance to strike here between being intrusive and fulfilling the business’ legal obligation to keep employees safe at work. This will most obviously apply to DSE, which may be more rigorously enforced through equipment standards, but may also extend to things like fire safety inspections.

There may even be considerations about what constitutes an appropriate workspace from perspectives such as the provision of adequate light, working temperatures, and the impact a space might have on someone’s mental health. Current safety regulations are aimed more at ensuring immediate physical safety within the workplace, and preventing some long-term illnesses and injuries. Measures to protect things like eyesight (which is greatly affected by working on computers and other devices) could be implemented, both as a safety measure and to alleviate pressure on the healthcare system.

The improvements made since the Health and Safety at Work Act have been exponential, with fatalities falling steadily every decade. Yet the next 50 years will undoubtedly constitute the biggest change to working practices yet. New technologies have the potential to drastically change the way we work, from how we navigate spaces to the mental burden of work and the world at large.

The reassurance we can take is that the Health & Safety at Work Act has proved extremely flexible over the years. What was an overarching piece of safety legislation has proved a rocksteady foundation for hundreds of subsequent laws, covering many individual aspects of workplace safety across dozens of industries. Whatever the future holds, UK safety laws will be there to meet it – and ensure employers continue to keep employees safe in the workplace.