The Role of Demographics in the Future of WorkPosted on by
The future of work continues to be shaped by ongoing changes in the workplace, work, and workforce. Shifting workforce demographics will present both opportunities and challenges for occupational safety and health (OSH). A central challenge will be ensuring the equitable distribution of work-related benefits and risks that accompany these transformations. To meet this challenge, OSH and allied professionals and practitioners must address how institutionalized bias influences organizational design, work arrangements, technologies, and global climate change. These changes may disproportionately impact some workers in the increasingly diverse workforce. Indeed, as the future of work unfolds, so too must key demographic-centered OSH considerations, such as the interrelationships between workers’ race/ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, and generational challenges, and workplace and work factors. Below, the authors provide a brief overview of the demographic makeup of the future workforce, pinpoint several future of work factors, and offer some OSH solutions. For more information, please join our webinar on November 17th (details below).
An increasing share of the total U.S. workforce is racial/ethnic minority workers and foreign-born workers . These workers are highly concentrated in non-standard work arrangements (e.g., day laborers, seasonal workers, independent contractors, and leased workers), which present unique OSH risks . Based on their gender identity and sexual orientation, workers may experience exclusion, discrimination, and violence [2-5]. Women are disproportionately affected by workplace violence , with women of color and immigrant women facing additional forms of harassment and discrimination [7-10]. They also experience more unstable and unpredictable work scheduling practices, negatively affecting their safety, health, and well-being, and that of their families . Working mothers are often not provided with sufficient workplace or societal support and resources to healthily balance work demands with reproductive plans and caregiving, especially if they fall within a lower socio-economic status bracket [12-15]. Additionally, the percentage of U.S. adults openly identifying as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ) is increasing, primarily among the millennial cohort  and these LGBTQ workers deserve supportive, inclusive, and safe workplaces. The multi-generational workforce may also confront and create disproportionate challenges moving forward. In particular, the proportion of older workers has risen and is expected to grow through 2050 [17-18]. While older workers tend to experience fewer injuries than their younger counterparts, when injury and illness incidents do occur, they often require more time to heal or are more likely to be fatal [19-20]. Additional concerns may include managing possible diminished physical capacity, slowing cognition and decreased working memory, more difficulty with hearing and vision, higher rates of musculoskeletal conditions, and chronic diseases . Compared to workers over age 25, younger workers aged 15-24 are twice as likely to visit an emergency room due to a work-related injury , with those under 18 years of age especially vulnerable to experiencing work-related injuries and fatalities .
As new technologies are developed and evaluated, we must consider workforce diversity to ensure they do not cause harm and equitably benefit and provide safety and health protections for all. For example, protecting the workforce requires that workers have properly fitting tools, machines, workspaces, personal protective equipment (PPE), and wearable devices such as exoskeletons. Improperly fitting PPE is a major and growing challenge for women in the modern workplace, especially as they move into “non-traditional” and more hazardous occupations (e.g., construction) , given that the full range of workers’ body sizes and shapes across the U.S. has not typically been considered during the design process . Furthermore, there must be efforts to address the racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that may be built into machine-learning algorithms underlying artificial intelligence (AI) systems, which can exacerbate occupational health inequities, if left unchecked .
Global climate change is a future of work issue impacting the workplace, work, and workforce. Climate change will increasingly present OSH hazards that disproportionately impact certain workers who are already at higher risk for injury, illness, and fatality . For instance, immigrant workers and those of lower socio-economic status are frequently employed in high-risk occupations (such as agriculture, construction, transportation, and emergency work), which are often subject to outdoor extreme weather conditions exacerbated by climate change [27-29]. Immigrant workers face a combination of risk factors for heat-related illnesses, including lack of OSH knowledge and quality training, poverty, seasonality of jobs, lack of decision-making autonomy, and extreme work conditions [30-34]. Low-wage workers, who are disproportionally racial/ethnic minorities and foreign-born individuals, also often reside in neighborhoods and housing that are more susceptible to extreme weather events [35-39]. Additionally, they are more likely to be employed in clean-up and rebuilding efforts, which may expose them to unique and more hazardous or toxic conditions with less government oversight, supervision, and access to protective equipment [40-41]. These OSH concerns will likely rise, given an expected increase in extreme weather events and surge in foreign-born workers due to increased global climate-related migration to the U.S. [38, 42]. Finally, in addition to entering the workforce during a time of rapid technological advancements, young people report facing increasing uncertainties and stressors caused by global climate change as well [43-44].
Overlaying these factors is institutionalized bias, a major issue of concern for the workforce. Institutional bias is defined as “those established laws, customs, and practices which systematically reflect and produce group-based inequities in any society” . In preparing for the future, it is important to identify and eliminate institutionalized bias that contributes to existing occupational health inequities and ensure these structural exclusions, as described above, are not repeated moving forward. Occupational health inequities refer to avoidable differences in work-related fatalities, injuries, and illnesses closely linked with social, economic, and/or environmental disadvantages. Similarly, imbalanced power relationships that often occur by race/ethnicity, nativity, gender, sexual orientation, age, class, disability, and/or neurodiversity (i.e., variations in brain function, such as autism, ADHD, and dyslexia) can result in differential employment opportunities, unequal exposure and susceptibility to workplace hazards, and an inequitable distribution of occupational illness, injury, and fatality . Workers may also be members of multiple socially marginalized groups and therefore experience overlapping structural inequities . Regrettably, institutional efforts to document and improve OSH outcomes do not often adequately include the experiences and perspectives of historically excluded social groups .
Though the future of work brings many challenges (some of which are still unknown), OSH and allied partners can help remedy many workplace and work issues impacting workers across demographics, namely:
- Reviewing policies and practices to identify and correct institutionalized bias,
- Improving data collection to better understand OSH disparities,
- Implementing policies and programs to reduce occupational health inequities,
- Fostering workplace inclusivity and worker empowerment,
- Developing inclusive technology, and
- Mitigating global climate change.
Such steps should use worker-centered safety and health approaches, to include job flexibility, investments in worker training and skill-building, and ergonomic and lifestyle interventions that consider the workforce’s growing diversity . To ensure these benefits reach workers equitably, traditional OSH approaches should be complemented with new perspectives that view work as a social determinant of health and address the social aspects of health and well-being. These and other actions will ensure that, regardless of changing demographic characteristics, the future of work will be safer and healthier for all workers.
Would you like to learn more about workplace- and work-related risks and benefits across demographic groups to help ensure the safety, health, and well-being of tomorrow’s workforce? Join us on Wednesday, November 17, 2021 from 2:00-3:00 pm EST for a free webinar: The Role of Demographics in the Future of Work, featuring Dr. Laura Syron from CDC/NIOSH and Dr. Marie-Anne Rosemberg from the University of Michigan.
Register here to attend this exciting webinar presented by the NIOSH Future of Work Initiative.
How well are the safety and health needs of the increasingly diverse U.S. workforce being met? We would like to hear about your experiences in the comment section below.
To learn more about the NIOSH Future of Work Initiative, please visit its website.
Laura Syron, PhD, MPH, is an epidemiologist in the NIOSH Western States Division and an Assistant Program Coordinator for the Occupational Health Equity Program and the Center for Maritime Safety and Health Studies.
Marie-Anne S. Rosemberg, PhD, MN, RN, FAAOHN, is an Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan School of Nursing and a Core Faculty member of the University of Michigan’s NIOSH-Funded Education and Research Center (ERC) program.
Michael Flynn, MA, is a social scientist in the NIOSH Division of Science Integration and coordinates the Occupational Health Equity Program.
Jacqueline Sivén, PhD, MA, MPH, is a social scientist in the NIOSH Division of Science Integration and an Occupational Health Equity Program Assistant Coordinator.
Andrea Steege, PhD, MPH is a lead research health scientist and epidemiologist in the NIOSH Division of Field Studies and Engineering and Occupational Health Equity Program Assistant Coordinator.
Sara L. Tamers, PhD, MPH is Coordinator of the NIOSH Future of Work Initiative, Coordinator of the Total Worker Health® Program, and Assistant Coordinator of the Healthy Work Design and Well-Being Program.
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