Mobile IT-supported work – a challenge for OSH and human factors

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Michael Bretschneider-Hagemes, DGUV, Germany


Introduction

Work in the information society is characterized by a high level of penetration by information and communication technologies (ICT). The corresponding technical artefacts take the form of smartphones, laptops, etc. At the same time, a progressive erosion can be observed of the traditional association of work with a particular location. Far-reaching changes like these to the relevant work systems imply corresponding stresses and potential for impairing strain. The article gives an overview of the main aspects of the ongoing societal change and its consequences for (mobile) workspaces and a safe and healthy work arrangement.


Orientation – OSH and mobile work in the context of the digitization of the working world

The digitization of human environments, which has progressed at a breakneck pace since the onset of the third industrial revolution owing to the spread of microelectronics into all areas, has also impacted upon the area of employment [1]. Stationary computer workplaces have been commonplace in administrations and other contexts at least since the late 1970s. Whereas initially the devices used were mere dumb terminals, i.e. input and output devices connected to a central mainframe, PC-based workplaces became widespread in the course of the 1980s. In these networked but decentralized systems, the CPU was made available to individual users, enabling them to complete more complex and less standardized tasks. This made use of the PC as a universal machine attractive for forms of salaried work which had not previously been associated with information technology. Whether in manufacturing and production, administration, teaching, research, or services of all kinds, information technology made inroads into every aspect of vocational activity. Changes in the world of work and the ensuing problems for the occupational safety and health of workers were considered by the parties responsible and suitable measures were taken in the form of field-specific research at research-bodies all over the world [2]. During a phase of comparatively quiet development in the field of IT, the technical performance of the equipment increased considerably; at the same time however, the quality of the associated salaried work and the resulting relevance for occupational safety and health stagnated. Workplaces continued to be stationary. Input devices similar in kind, output devices (especially display screens) underwent substantial ergonomic improvements. The advent of the Internet brought the calm situation of the early 1990s to an abrupt end: PCs rapidly became networked, driven by the economic interest in productivity gains on the one hand and naive proclamations of a "Brave New World" on the other.

More recently, an issue of relevance to occupational safety and health emerged: that of home-based teleworking. It became truly attractive with the advent of networking over the Internet. Even though the actual tasks involve stationary office workplaces in the traditional sense (which are therefore subject in many EU-Ordinances), the spatial distance between the persons carrying out the work nevertheless gives rise to new problems. Communication barriers prevent the potential benefits being exploited to the full; the management of personnel is geared, for want of better alternatives, to pure management by results; the resulting growing disregard for the work context raises the pressure upon the employee. The teleworker is increasingly held responsible for failures and for drops in productivity, if not legally, then at least in the view of the parties involved, who also make this view known. In addition, persistently isolated forms of work also increase the psychosocial stress upon the employee [3]. In consideration of the negative impacts, such workplaces have generally morphed into alternating home-based teleworking.

The technical developments responsible for the sea-change in the human environment and the world of work since the turn of the millennium are due in particular to the interaction between information and communication technology (the smartphone being a classic example) and to the spread of the wireless infrastructure, which is fast becoming ubiquitous. This infrastructure makes familiar facilities such as hotspots and/or 3G (or successor standards such as LTE/4G) universally available. The concept of always on and always reachable, which has already been embraced wholeheartedly by the young generation of digital natives and is now barely questioned, will be taken to a new level and shape the mentality of whole subsets of society, and will be promoted and exploited by business much more strongly than in the past [4]. Equipped with typical technical products such as laptops, smartphones, etc., the mobile IT-supported worker is a manifestation of the existing technical possibilities in the context of salaried work in all conceivable sectors. A typical workplace is also a more or less networked car as a new mobile office (cf. Chapter 4.). The relevance of this working group is evident not least when the situation already reached in mobile IT-supported work is compared to that of conventional home-based teleworking (cf. Fig. 1).

Figure 1: Home-based teleworking vs. mobile employees
Source: Future Fundation, Brandt, Brandl, 2008 [5]

In the performance of their tasks, mobile IT-supported workers face risks from a range of sources, of which there has been only limited awareness to date (cf. Table 1):

Source: [6]

The identification of these sources of risks (cf. Table 1) is important for a reorganization of the workspaces. The suspected sources of risk were studied with regard to their actual relevance by the measurement of stresses and strains [7].

It was shown that mobile workers are often effectively off the radar, are excluded from company support measures, and/or that their specific needs are not known. Training and other measures which could improve the stress situation, particularly in the area of behavioural prevention, are frequently lacking. The permanent reachability that is made possible by mobile ICT gives rise to a need for arrangements at company-specific arrangements, such as company agreements.

Certain typical and empirical psychosocial, ergonomic and organizational aspects and recommendations are presented below. The recommendations are based essentially upon the quantitative research approach of the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (IFA),of the DGUV and upon subsequent laboratory studies [8].


Psychosocial aspects and organizational implications: isolation, scheduling, permanent reachability, surveillance

The introduction of mobile information and communication technologies has also resulted in changes in the organization of daily work. The possibilities presented by "any place, any time", and the fact that it is at least technically possible for the location of each and every field worker to be determined and for movement profiles to be generated, gives rise to new psychosocial stressors upon the isolated workers during their work. The core aspects and some recommendations are presented below.

Isolation

In many cases, mobile ICT-supported work increases the productivity of the work processes. The mobility has its downside, however. Whereas their co-workers at stationary workplaces often have access to a dense network of social contacts which are conducive not only to social life, but also to the flow of information within a company, mobile employees generally work alone, often with no opportunity for discussion or to meet their colleagues face to face. The isolated situation of the workers concerned has repeatedly been seen to cause difficulties. For example, solutions found to the problems affecting individual workers do not benefit the group as a whole; information on processes of change within the company cannot be discussed within the group; and since they do not happen in the first place, discussions with colleagues do not serve as an outlet for frustration.

Organizations therefore have a vital interest in information being shared. The proverbial chat in the corridor, though often derided, has long served as an intelligent mode of informal communication within companies. The mental well-being of employees is also an essential responsibility of modern occupational safety and health and a cornerstone of any robust organization. Negative impacts can be mitigated by organizational measures. For this purpose, working groups should hold team meetings at least once a month.

Scheduling

Beyond management level, work performed by mobile workers is typically co-ordinated and scheduled with the aid of ICT by a central office or dispatcher who is divorced from the practical work. Target times are defined for the tasks to be carried out, and are used to plan the entire working day. Practical experience shows that these target times are often very optimistic best cases and can be observed only under ideal conditions. They result in the worker being placed under enormous pressure, and often running behind schedule. The pressure is further increased by dissatisfied schedulers and customers, both of which are relying upon the schedule based upon the target time. In order to reduce this mental stress and to improve the satisfaction of all parties involved, it is essential that target times for the tasks be agreed jointly between the mobile service technicians and the planners/schedulers.

Permanent reachability

The use of mobile ICT results in mobile workers being reachable at all times. On the one hand, this is a blessing: agreements can be reached directly and quickly, and digital information can be transferred at any time through the all-pervading data transmission infrastructure. On the other, it is a curse: the permanent reachability is often treated by the stationary workers (schedulers, managers, etc.) as being synonymous with permanent availability. This leads to frequent disturbances in and interruptions to essential work processes. The consequence is not only stress, but also substantial reductions in productivity. In order for this phenomenon to be addressed pro-actively, company agreements governing the issue have proved to be an effective instrument [9].

They constitute a collective framework for behaviour which relieves the individual workers from personal, often very difficult decisions. A company agreement may determine the times at which a worker must be reachable, the remuneration for calling on workers outside working hours and when an absent status can/may be activated in order for core tasks to be pursued without interruption. These simple common rules enable the mobile workers to work reliably, productively and with less stress.

Surveillance

It is technically possible for ICT to be used to monitor workers and to generate movement profiles for them. Workers frequently fear this practice and feel spied upon and stressed by the mere theoretical possibility of this happening. Such situations should be governed in a transparent and binding way within companies so as not to provide any basis for such fears. Here too, company agreements and codes of ethics governing have proved effective. They should point up what data are interpreted with the aid of satellite/SIM card technology, and why. Also important is who is able to access the data and where the data is stored.


Ergonomic aspects

Stationary workplaces offer the great advantage of enabling static environmental conditions to be maintained and controlled. This is of benefit not least for the organization of ergonomic aspects and the facility for their control within companies. By contrast, mobile workers face continually changing environmental conditions that cannot be controlled. The employer's risk assessment is important for mobile tasks in particular. The context of the work remains beyond control; scope is however revealed for influencing the ergonomics of the work equipment and its use in the context of mobility. Selected examples are provided below:

Use of laptops

Laptops are crucial to the work of most mobile workers. The devices are used to complete a wide range of tasks, from administrative tasks to the reading of plans and sketches. Laptops are the class of equipment offering potentially the best ergonomic compromise, provided certain criteria are observed during their purchase and use:

  • Glossy screens vs. anti-glare: glossy screens have become very popular in recent years. They are however not suitable for commercial use. This is particularly the case when work is performed outdoors. Reflections are distracting, tiring for the eyes, and a source of stress. Commercial users should use exclusively matt, anti-glare screens.
  • Display dimensions: laptops and netbooks must be selected with screen sizes which are suitable both for the tasks to be performed on them and for the mobility requirements. Under no circumstances should the display diagonal be less than 10".
  • Luminance: besides the reflection properties of a display, further quality criteria are relevant to the use of the devices in the field, particularly outdoors. The luminance, measured in candela/m2 (cd/m2), is an important factor. Observations in the field and laboratory tests conducted have led to the conclusion that devices with a luminance of 400 candela/m2 or more are very suitable [10].

Use of smartphones

More than virtually any other item of work equipment, smartphones are synonymous with the new mobile, digitized and networked world of work. They combine, in a single device, a range of functions for which multiple items of equipment would have been required only a few years ago. Owing to these properties, they are often the preferred and also the most cost-effective tool. However, as the field observations showed, smartphones are overloaded with tasks for which they are not suitable, particularly for ergonomic reasons. Extended inputting data is possible only under considerable physical strain. Smartphones should therefore be used primarily for verbal communication and for tasks requiring little input and reading.


Mobile IT-supported work and vehicles/driving

The use of mobile ICT in road vehicles is a sensitive topic from a safety perspective (cf. [11]. , [12]. , [13].

Many application scenarios exist, beginning with the use of various types of satellite navigation system through to the integration of laptops. Thousands of workplaces can be found which present no alternative to the use of a road vehicle as a mobile office. In order to make the use of mobile ICT in road vehicles as safe and productive as possible, certain criteria must be observed:

  • Mounts (regardless of whether they are for satellite navigation systems, mobile phones or laptops) are considered for the most part under EU law as a load and not as an installation (cf. the classification by DEKRA, TÜV, etc.). Where mounts are declared to be loads, they do not automatically require a general operating permit, TÜV certificate or similar in order to be placed on the Single Market. Nor are the manufacturers obliged in this case to conduct crash testing. Their use is classified as the securing of a load, the responsibility for which lies with the driver, or with the employer, who must include the work equipment in his risk assessment. Owing to the unpredictability of critical consequences, only mounts that have been subjected to official product testing should therefore be used.
  • Airbags: the ICT device must be installed with consideration for the deployment range of the airbag.
  • Obstruction of vision: some forms of device installation may obstruct the driver's vision and consequently present a very real hazard during driving.
Figure 2: Obstruction of vision caused by satellite navigation devices
Sichtbehinderung = Obstruction of visibility
nach 15 = At 15 m
Navigationsgerät = Navigation device
12 x 8 cm gross = Dimensions 12 x 8 cm
ca. 60 cm vom Kopf = Approx. 60 cm from the head

Source: Zurich municipal police authority, with kind permission

Even a comparatively small VDU device like the satellite navigation device shown produces a blind spot of 2 × 3 m at a viewing distance of 15 m (cf. Fig. 2). No devices should therefore be mounted on the windscreen.

  • Distraction: When driving, distractions of any kind constitute a latent hazard. Mobile information and communication technology is of major relevance in this context since phone calls or even audio signals announcing the receipt of any kind of information (SMS, email, etc.) might distract the driver.

Progress of technology and the future impact on employment

The ongoing development of IT will shape future ways of working with computer-supported collaborative work and will establish new organizational factors. Stationary work will be more and more the exception than the rule. Moreover, the term, stationary work gets a new quality in terms of involvement of the workers presence in the local ambient intelligence: The paradigm of ambient intelligence means to the employee to interact with an autonomously operating environment which must take into account in its work activities. This is especially true for driver jobs and IT integration into vehicles. Via radio frequency identification (RFID) tags the employee becomes recognizable and predictable for the intelligent environment. New stressors and hazards can be expected in this context, because of a loss of control and the increasing dependence on technology, but also because of new cognitive demands of such complex work environments. Virtual environments will be networked to the internet of things (networked objects) soon. As a result the activities of the employees can be represented online (eg. via wearable transponder which feeds the data in the virtual environment). Accordingly, very sophisticated tracking and monitoring systems will be possible. To consider the authors of the EU Final Report Tender No. VT/2007/0117: "Soon people will be part of a technical system. Peoples roll will change from the acting subject to the object of an automatic process." [14]. The briefly shown lines of action in this plot for the labour protection (psychosocial aspects, ergonomics and vehicle integration) will therefore continue to remain highly topical. The occupational safety and health has to accompany these developments in terms of humane work.


References

  1. Balkhausen, D., Die dritte industrielle Revolution. Wie die Mikroelektronik unser Leben verändert, Econ, Düsseldorf, 1978.
  2. Council Directive 90/270/EEC: Minimum safety and health requirements for work with display screen equipment, EU Doc. 31990 L 0270.
  3. Brandt, C.; Brandl, K.-H., Von der Telearbeit zur mobilen Arbeit. In: Computer und Arbeit, 3/08, Bund Verlag, Frankfurt a.M., 2008.
  4. Prensky, M., Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants. In: On the Horizon, MCB University Press, Vol. 9 No. 5, 2001.
  5. Brandt, C.; Brandl, K.-H., Von der Telearbeit zur mobilen Arbeit. In: Computer und Arbeit, 3/08, Bund Verlag, Frankfurt a.M., 2008.
  6. DGUV, GVG, Final Report – Investigation into the impact on occupational safety and health in Europe of the increasing use of portable computing and communication devices (Tender No. VT/2007/0117), Cologne, 2008.
  7. Bretschneider-Hagemes, M., Belastungen und Beanspruchen bei mobiler IT-gestützter Arbeit – Eine empirische Studie im Bereich mobiler, technischer Dienstleistungen Zeitschrift für Arbeitswissenschaft 65, No 3, 2011, pp. 223-233
  8. Bretschneider-Hagemes, M., Belastungen und Beanspruchen bei mobiler IT-gestützter Arbeit – Eine empirische Studie im Bereich mobiler, technischer Dienstleistungen Zeitschrift für Arbeitswissenschaft 65, No 3, 2011, pp. 223-233.
  9. Kiper, Manuel: Umgang mit Bordcomputern, Ortungssystemen und Smartphones, Reihe: Betriebs- und Dienstvereinbarungen/Kurzauswertungen, Düsseldorf, 2011.
  10. Bretschneider-Hagemes, M., Belastungen und Beanspruchen bei mobiler IT-gestützter Arbeit – Eine empirische Studie im Bereich mobiler, technischer Dienstleistungen Zeitschrift für Arbeitswissenschaft 65, No 3, 2011, pp. 223-233
  11. DGUV/IFA: BGI/GUV-I 8696, Information - Einsatz von bordeigenen Kommunikations- und Informationssystemen mit Bildschirmen an Fahrerarbeitsplätzen. Published by: DGUV, Berlin, 2009
  12. Council Directive 72/245/EEC relating to the radio interference (electromagnetic compatibility) of vehicles and Council Directive 70/156/EEC on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the type-approval of motor vehicles and their trailers, 1996.
  13. Council Directive 74/60/EEC of 17 December 1973 on the approximation of the laws of the Member States relating to the interior fittings of motor vehicles OJ L 53, 25.2.1997.
  14. DGUV, GVG, Final Report – Investigation into the impact on occupational safety and health in Europe of the increasing use of portable computing and communication devices (Tender No. VT/2007/0117), Cologne, 2008.


Links for further reading

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Risk assessment for Teleworkers, E-fact 33, EU-OSHA, 23.9.2008. Available at: [1]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Research on changing world of work. Available at: [2]

EU-OSHA – European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, The human-machine interface as an emerging risk, 2009. Available at: [3]