Risks of new technology

In the modern world, the dangers of asbestos are well understood, but back in the 1970s it was widely used and thought to be a ‘wonder material’ with superb insulating and fire retardant properties.

A huge number of people were unintentionally exposed to harmful fibres, and over 40 years later experts still believe we have not yet reached the peak in the number of resulting cases of asbestos-related disease.

I’d like to believe that such a situation could never occur again, but the pace of change in the modern world means that new technology can become mainstream extremely quickly, offering little opportunity for evaluation of potential health impacts and identification of control measures.

The cost of machinery such as 3D printers and laser cutters now makes such devices affordable for small and micro businesses, schools and hobbyists. This is giving rise to a whole new take on manufacturing, introducing low-cost options for small scale and ‘one off’ production in homes and small workshops. 

We are also seeing the introduction of ‘maker spaces’ – collaborative locations equipped with 3D printers and other similar technology – where designers, entrepreneurs and others can pay a small amount to access the facilities on an ad hoc basis. In addition, some people able to afford to purchase such equipment themselves, are looking to recoup the cost through outsourced production via e-commerce.

In many ways this relatively low-cost approach to small scale or ‘one off’ production is very welcome. It is regularly highlighted in the media through stories about bespoke development of one-off items. But are the owners and users of this machinery equipped with sufficient knowledge and skills to manage the health and safety risks appropriately?

Effective health and safety management is based on the concept of proportionality, and should not be a barrier to innovation and development. This emerging technology and legislation requires that equipment is designed to mitigate physical hazards. However, there are a number of other hazards that arise linked specifically to the way that equipment is set up, used and adjusted and to the choice of consumables made by the user. In a standard commercial setting, systems will be in place to ensure that such hazards are assessed and control measures specified by competent people in order to mitigate the risk.

But how are these issues being managed in the informal sector? Is appropriate information being provided to users? Are they in a position to understand the potential issues and what should be done to manage them? Or is a whole new approach required?

These days people are unlikely to turn to a hard copy instruction manual or a formal training course for information on setting up and operating equipment, particularly outside of a traditional workplace and much more inclined to turn to the internet and YouTube videos for advice and guidance.

Many of these are accurate and high-quality resources, but there is no system for quality assurance, and it would be easy to end up with unsuitable or inaccurate information that could put safety or long-term health at risk.

The answer certainly isn’t about increasing rules and regulation. The focus needs to be on informing people about the potential hazards; empowering them to make sensible decisions in their selection of equipment and consumables, and providing guidance about ways in which risks can be mitigated.

Manufacturers of both machinery and consumables have a key role to play. They already have a relationship with users, so it’s natural for them to take a role as providers of trusted information. However, this needs to go beyond the traditional ‘instruction book’ approach and bring the information in an engaging way.

There’s a role for academic institutions and professional bodies too. They have a reputation for high-quality research, development and learning, and access to huge amounts of expertise, which could be deployed to develop resources to support users of new technology.

What’s required now is a catalyst to bring key parties together and drive change. The government have recently set up a new body to consider particularly issues associated with product safety. The responsibilities and remit are still evolving, but we have to hope that coordinating this sort of collaborative and engagement activity will form a key part of their role and their planning for the future.

Innovation and entrepreneurial activity are likely to be at the heart of the future industrial strategy for the UK, and a proportionate and enabling approach to health and safety will be essential if we are to promote worker wellbeing in the diversified economy of the future.

Louise Ward is director of policy, communications and standards at the British Safety Council