As gig working becomes more commonplace, how can OSH professionals ensure that safety standards are maintained for every worker in their care?
Where once there was a straightforward split between the employed and self-employed, today’s labour market is much more complex. The UK’s ‘gig economy’ workforce is now estimated at 7.25 million people (Fennell, 2022). The global figure is expected to hit 73 million in 2023 (Mastercard, 2020).One study found 18% of HR directors in the UK think three-quarters of their workforce will be gig workers in the next five years (Fennell, 2022).
Non-standard work had always been more common in developing countries but is growing rapidly in industrialised nations, as well as infiltrating sectors traditionally associated with standard jobs, such as office work (International Labour Organization (ILO), 2016). In the UK and EU, non-standard workers have a legal right to the same health and safety protection as permanent staff, but the picture varies globally. ‘Whatever way people work for your organisation, you have an equal duty of care towards them, not just legally but ethically too,’ says Angela Gray, senior OSH specialist for IOSH. ‘If that is how you are managing your labour strategy, you have a responsibility to have a policy nailed down on how you are going to keep them safe.’
This should apply across the board, from SMEs to large corporate organisations – whether casual staff represent a small portion of the workforce or most of it.
Who’s the boss?
Casual workers come in many guises, taking in temporary, agency and zero-hours staff. But they are all defined as workers under UK law, providing they do not subcontract their tasks or are engaged through a limited company, with a right to work without detriment. The status of gig workers who operate via a gig platform, such as Uber or TaskRabbit, is a greyer area, as they are short-term flexible workers paid on completion of tasks.
The law around the world is evolving to define them, albeit slowly, with the Supreme Court of England and Wales ruling in February 2021 that Uber drivers should have worker status, thanks to sustained lobbying by the GMB, a UK general trade union. The European Commission has also proposed new measures to improve working conditions for platform workers, which have a 2025 deadline to become law (EU, 2021).
Guidance from the GB Health and Safety Executive (HSE) confirms that businesses should treat gig economy workers no differently to others, while in April 2022, PPE regulations were amended to place a duty on every employer in Great Britain to provide suitable PPE to all limb (b) workers – those who have a casual employment relationship and work under a contract for service – free of charge. Previously it was only required for limb (a) employees (those with a contract of employment) (HSE, 2022).
Non-standard workers: the psychosocial risks revealed
Job and income insecurity due to the temporary and short-term nature of gig work can lead to added psychosocial risks and stress for workers, says the ILO specialist. ‘Common reasons for workplace stress among app-based taxi and delivery workers include uncertainty of finding sufficient services, long working shifts, pressure to drive quickly and risk of work-related injury and violence,’ says Ana Catalina Ramírez (pictured).
‘Fearing loss of future work opportunities, workers may be discouraged from speaking up about OSH concerns. Workers on web-based platforms do both paid and unpaid hours of work, which increases the hours spent in the job and lead to a lack of work/life balance or difficulty disconnecting.’
Price of freedom
There is strong evidence that gig platform workers have a poorer work/life balance than permanent employees, not least because of the precarious nature of their income. In addition, almost half of this group are taking on tasks to supplement the income from a full-time job (Fennell, 2022), leaving them vulnerable to fatigue and burnout.
When the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work analysed 93 studies into the link between non-standard employment and negative impact on health and safety, 76 found it was associated with a deterioration in terms of injury rates, disease risk, hazard exposures or worker and manager knowledge (EU-OSHA, 2021).
While gig work is varied, much of it still centres on lone workers operating in vulnerable, unregulated settings, with one survey revealing 42% of drivers and riders had suffered damage to their vehicle due to a collision while working (UCL, 2018).
It makes for a perfect storm of high risk and high pressure. ‘Work in the platform economy often includes groups of workers that are already particularly vulnerable to OSH risks, such as migrant workers, young workers and women,’ says Ana Catalina Ramírez, OSH specialist for the ILO. ‘Migrant workers may face increased job insecurity, resulting in them being discouraged from reporting incidents to their employer, as well as barriers to accessing healthcare or other services in the event of an accident or injury.’
Talk the talk
New methods of working need new solutions if OSH professionals are to mitigate and prevent the hazards. ‘[Non-standard workers] can be harder to engage than traditional employees,’ says Angela. ‘You might not even meet them, and it’s not as easy to fulfil your duties. It’s difficult to rely on written information, emails and video links, and to be sure that these workers will read, understand or use it.’
Communicating to casuals that the process is for their benefit – and demonstrates their value to the business – will also reap rewards. ‘Let them know this is not just a tick-box exercise,’ says Angela. ‘There needs to be clear signposting to their points of contact to report problems, both a normal channel and a whistleblowing route.’
New methods of working need new solutions if we are to mitigate and prevent hazards
This will also help to mitigate the risk of casual staff disrupting your existing safety regime. ‘Having a good safety culture in place will ensure permanent staff feel empowered to challenge errors and support their casual colleagues to work safely,’ says Angela.
Steve Garelick, GMB officer for transport and logistics, emphasises that OSH professionals need to educate upwards. ‘The people running some gig platforms have very little understanding of health and safety dynamic risk assessments,’ he says. ‘They are not looking at the bigger picture. If you are going to operate a business and expect individuals to serve that business, you have a duty of care to their safety and their security of wealth. It comes down to being ethical and doing the right thing.’
Case study: Deliveroo
Founded in London in 2013, Deliveroo operates a hyperlocal three-sided digital marketplace, connecting consumers, restaurants and grocers, and riders.
It operates in 11 markets worldwide, with 110,000 self-employed riders.
Deliveroo provides free personal accident and third-party liability insurance to every rider, along with earning support for sickness and a new child payment.
The policy covers them up to an hour after they finish their shift, but car and scooter users need to buy their own vehicle insurance, including cover for food delivery.
There is a live rider support team to advise on topics from payments to safety.
Key kit has minimal safety requirements, although riders are required to buy it. They are provided with information on cleaning and maintaining these items.
In September 2022, Deliveroo UK created a voluntary partnership with the GMB union to discuss pay and consult on health and safety, benefits and inclusion.
EU-OSHA. (2021) Precarious employment. (accessed 22 November 2022).
European Commision. (2021) Commission proposals to improve the working conditions of people working through digital labour platforms. (accessed 1 November 2022).
European Commision. (2022) Working conditions: health and safety in fixed-term and temporary employment. (accessed 1 November 2022).
Fennell A. (2022) Gig economy statistics UK. StandOut CV. (accessed 1 November 2022).
Mastercard. (2020) Fueling the global gig economy. (accessed 1 November 2022).
ILO. (2016) Non-standard employment around the world: understanding challenges, shaping prospects. (accessed 1 November 2022).
HSE. (2022) Personal protective equipment (PPE) at work regulations from 6 April 2022. (accessed 1 November 2022).
UCL. (2018) Gig economy drivers and riders at heightened risk of traffic collisions. (accessed 1 November 2022).