Algorithms and the Future of WorkPosted on by
An algorithm is a series of precise, step-by-step instructions used by a machine to perform a mathematical operation. The use of algorithm-enabled systems and devices will bring many benefits to occupational safety and health but, as with many new technologies, there are also risks to workers. A new commentary in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine focuses on new sources of worker risk that algorithms present in the use of worker management systems, advanced sensor technologies, and robotic devices. Determining if an algorithm is safe for workplace use is rapidly becoming a challenge for manufacturers, programmers, employers, workers, and occupational safety and health practitioners. To achieve the benefits that algorithm-enabled systems and devices promise in the future of work, we must study how to effectively manage their risks. Key points from the commentary are highlighted below. An in-depth discussion is available in the article.
Algorithms in the Workplace
Machine learning algorithms are powering various occupational safety and health applications across several industry sectors. Algorithm applications are found in manufacturing;[3, 4] construction; agriculture; extractive mining; retail; and public governance. Data-driven insights powered by algorithm-enabled systems and devices can be conceptualized as future-of-work tools in occupational safety and health that may one day tell you what happened (descriptive systems) and why it happened (diagnostic systems); forecast what will happen (predictive systems); support decision-making based on present and future conditions (prescriptive systems); and take physical actions (semi-autonomous and autonomous systems).[10-13]
The expected benefits of integrating algorithms into workplace equipment, processes, conditions, and human management systems should be tempered by a full awareness and understanding of their risk profile. Understanding the risks and benefits of algorithm-enabled workplace systems should be based on a comprehensive risk evaluation. Risks posed by algorithm-enabled systems generally originate in three areas:
(1) errors and biases in the input or training data;
(2) flaws in the design of the algorithm or mistakes in coding the algorithm into programming language; and
(3) user disregard of an algorithm’s limitations or underlying assumptions, leading to inappropriate application or incorrect interpretation of system outputs or decisions.
The increasing complexity of proprietary algorithms—especially self-learning algorithms which can change their decision logic during operation—make it difficult for designers, manufacturers, and users to gain an operational understanding about how an algorithm works.[16,17] Lack of algorithmic transparency can be a major impediment to the assessment and control of new occupational safety and health risks.14 As algorithmic decision making is increasing in various societal systems, and in worker management systems, advanced sensor technologies, and robotic devices,  attention is focused on ways to attain greater algorithm transparency.[19 –21]
Close physical supervision has been the traditional way that employers have monitored their workers. Employers can now monitor workers by means of video surveillance; track a worker’s physical movements through geolocation algorithms; monitor an employee’s use of email, social media, and web browsing; assess a worker’s productivity, level of engagement, propensity to leave the organization, and adherence to workplace safety behaviors.[22-24] These new data-driven approaches to human resources management are referred to as “people analytics” and are touted as helping employers make better decisions.
Algorithmic management techniques can collect and store worker data on a continuous basis, potentially without express purpose or worker disclosure. In some algorithmic management technologies, the observer of the worker and the decision-maker can both be non-human agents.[27–29] Algorithmic-enabled productivity and performance systems often represent a type of management control without worker consent when surveillance is not prospectively disclosed to workers. When algorithms are given power over a worker’s job, and when the worker has no information or understanding of what data the algorithm is collecting, how the data are being used, and for what purpose, workers report feelings of powerlessness.[31, 32] This is not surprising since under algorithmic management workers often have no meaningful interaction with their “digital supervisor.” [27, 33] This algorithmic management can be associated with the erosion of worker autonomy, work intensification, psychosocial stress, and a decline in worker well-being.[34–36]
Algorithmic management is especially pervasive in the gig economy,[37–39] but digital surveillance and management technologies are also seen across other industry sectors.[40, 41] Shift allocation algorithms, delivery route algorithms, warehouse workers movement algorithms, continuous performance algorithms, and other work productivity algorithms are being applied not only to manufacturing workers, but also to service workers, knowledge workers, warehouse workers, and even to first-line supervisors. 
New algorithmic technologies have the potential to significantly transform organizational control by affecting the employer-employee relationship. The diffusion of algorithmic management systems will affect the future of work but may do so in unintended and undesirable ways. While the limits of what is private about a worker under algorithmic management are currently uncertain, the presence of large amounts of information about a worker within an algorithmic-enabled system presents a potential security risk. Additionally, algorithms that are used to automate organizational management systems may produce discriminatory outcomes that can reproduce and reinforce society’s historical age, racial and ethnic, and gender biases, among others.[44,45]
Advanced Sensor Technologies
Sensors are at the heart of technology-managed work as they provide the data inputs for algorithmic controls. Advanced sensor technologies are being commercialized and entering the workplace as new exposure science tools. Advanced sensor technologies using miniaturized algorithm-embedded microprocessors have the potential to greatly accelerate advances in occupational exposure science by continuously sensing the ambient work environment for hazardous substances or a worker’s proximity to known hazards. However, they can also raise worker concerns over intrusive worker surveillance, algorithmic bias, and violation of personal privacy.
Algorithms are critical components of all robotic devices. From an AI architectural perspective, robotic devices can be physically-embodied robots or digital-decision assistants. Robots exhibit three major functions: they sense, plan, and act. Algorithms are involved in all three of these essential robotic functions. As with algorithmic management systems, work intensification may occur when a robotic system under algorithmic control causes a mismatch between a human worker’s physical or cognitive capabilities and work demands. When robotic systems are designed to maximize productivity without adequately considering the impact on human workers’ performance, their risk profile increases. While integration of robotics into work processes promises many productivity benefits, workers may face the risks of work intensification and job displacement from their use.
Introduction of algorithm-enabled AI systems and devices for workplace use is accelerating faster than algorithm-specific risk assessment and risk management strategies can be developed. [2, 51] When integrated into workplace systems, algorithms can present a unique taxonomy of risks that may not be addressed in an organization’s traditional occupational safety and health risk management approaches. New methods are needed to detect biases in input data, find design errors in proprietary algorithms, and ensure that output decisions are logically derivative of the input data.  The risks arising from invasive surveillance, algorithmic bias, loss of autonomy and privacy, inaccurate decision outputs, and work intensification should be added to existing risk assessment and management approaches. Workers should also have latitude and method to challenge algorithm-generated decisions.
In the future of work, algorithms will provide many beneficial applications in occupational safety and health. While algorithm-enabled systems and devices may reduce sources of human error and enhance worker safety and health, algorithms may also introduce new sources of risks to worker wellbeing. Determining that an algorithm is safe for use in a worker management system, in advanced sensor technologies, in robotic devices, and in other workplace systems, tools and machinery will challenge the risk assessment and management capabilities of algorithm designers and software programmers, algorithm-enabled equipment manufacturers, employers, workers, and occupational safety and health practitioners. To ensure that the benefits of algorithm-enabled systems and devices have a prominent place in the future of work, now is the time to study how to effectively manage their risks.
John Howard, MD, Director, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health
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