Could safety by algorithms be next?

It seems to be increasingly important for occupational health and safety (OHS) to focus on the human and the humanity of the worker but this seems out of touch with the world of Human Resources (HR) and recruitment that is increasingly being dominated by impersonal algorithms.  Recently BBC’s Global Business program looked at Recruitment By Algorithm.

According to Global Business, recruitment assesses the “fit” of a job applicant through assessments undertaken by computer programs and algorithms.  This is occurring at the same time as OHS professionals are increasingly advocating the importance of a “safety culture” even though safety culture is difficult to define, and some deny it exists.  There seems to be an inherent conflict in the process of recruiting safe workers.

The BBC radio program stresses the need to include significant keywords in both the job application and the job interview so as to take the best advantage of the recruitment algorithms.  This is reflected in much of the content provided to on-line sites and services where content will be rejected if the “correct” keyword is not included in the first paragraph and repeated in the last – again to satisfy an algorithm. It is also prevalent in the writing of OHS documentation where the keywords, in this instance, have to reflect the words in the corporate mission statement, pledge or annual report.

It seems that the purpose is more important than valued the quality of one’s work and this runs counter to the current thinking in OHS and organisational culture.

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The radio program includes recruiting questions about rudeness which has an interesting overlap with OHS’s perspective on removing the precursors to workplace bullying, abuse and disharmony.  In April 2016, WorkSafe Victoria released A guidebook for employers about preventing and managing work-related stress which, for the first time, lists “incivility” as an organisational factor for stress.  Here is an example of a workplace issue that was traditionally in the area of HR, and to a lesser extent Ergonomics, becoming a broader organisational issue due to its potential impacts on the physical and mental health of workers – an issue clearly now coming under occupational health and safety.

One speaker in the BBC program says that there is no algorithm for originality or flair, to which can be added creativity.  These are the qualities that OHS is trying to develop and refine and most professions require curiosity to progress.  Perhaps recruitment gives its algorithms too much influence. Perhaps companies are undervaluing intuition.

Kevin Jones

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