Responsible Development of Emerging Technologies: Prioritizing Worker Safety

The rapid evolution of new and emerging technologies and their introduction into work environments has important implications for early assessment and protection against possible risks to employee health, says a paper in the July Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine.

"Responsible development of emerging technologies requires anticipating hazards and risks and ethical issues attendant to them," according to the report by Paul A. Schulte, PhD, of Advanced Technologies and Laboratories International, Inc, Gaithersburg, Md; Veruscka Leso, MD PhD, and Ivo Iavicoli, MD PhD, of the University of Naples Federico II, Italy. Drawing lessons from occupational safety and health assessment of engineered nanomaterials (ENMs), they outline an approach to responsible development of emerging technologies in the workplace. 

Workers are typically the first to be exposed to new technologies and typically experience the most extensive exposure—particularly early in the process of technology development. When the production of ENMs began in the early 2000s, several factors triggered safety concerns, including the known adverse health effects of exposure to small and ultrafine particles.

In response, international stakeholders called for responsible development of nanotechnology. Those efforts focused on five "criterion actions"­ related to identifying potential hazards, assessing exposures, communicating hazards and risks to workers, managing risks, and promoting safe development of nanomaterials.

While it's still too early to completely assess the extent to which nanotechnology has been developed responsibly—particularly the impact on worker health—these efforts provide a useful template for development of newer technologies. Dr. Schulte and colleagues present examples of approaches to responsible development of three rapidly emerging technologies: advanced manufacturing (including additive manufacturing), synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and algorithmic systems. 

Promoting competence in strategic and ethical foresight analysis will be critical in anticipating and circumventing potential hazards and ethical concerns. "Generally, these strategies have not focused on the health and safety of workers, but recent efforts are showing how they can," according to the authors. They also highlight the need for formal assessment of new hazards and unintended consequences of converging technologies.

"A technology cannot be responsibly developed if worker safety is not a priority," Dr. Schulte and coauthors conclude. They hope their paper will "[provide] a foundation for thinking and advising about the worker protection issues related to an emerging technology."