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Gig economy workers and health and safety: understanding the risks

The sharp rise of the 'gig economy' poses significant challenges for companies when it comes to health and safety and the well-being of workers. Although the gig economy model can offer various benefits, recent commentary has suggested that workers are at risk of physical and mental illness due to the lack of rights and protection. But are companies operating within the gig economy under a duty to protect the well-being of their workers?

The sharp rise of the 'gig economy' poses significant challenges for companies when it comes to health and safety and the well-being of workers. Although the gig economy model can offer various benefits, recent commentary has suggested that workers are at risk of physical and mental illness due to the lack of rights and protection. But are companies operating within the gig economy under a duty to protect the well-being of their workers? And as the definition of an employee continues to be called into question, who should take responsibility for health and safety risks at work? Despite the increasing debate on this issue there are still no clear answers to these questions.

A recent report  by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health ("IOSH") reveals that many individuals working flexibly and on zero hours contracts are working when sick, working unpaid overtime and going throughout the year without a paid holiday. Key findings from the IOSH's online survey also found that only 53 per cent of workers receive a full induction process, including essential information such as fire safety, compared to two-thirds of their full-time, permanent co-workers. In addition, only a third of non-permanent workers have access to occupational health support compared to more than half of their permanent colleagues.

According to recent media reports, some major companies are making provisions to address growing concerns around workers' health and well-being. For example, a spokesman for a popular ridesharing app revealed the company are planning to introduce a limit on the number of hours a driver in London can use the app within any given period. While this is a welcome development, there is little evidence to suggest that other companies operating within the wider gig economy are making similar changes. Indeed, from a legal point of view there remains a major discrepancy between the health and safety regulations in place for permanent workers and those on zero hours contracts. For example the regulations around drivers' hours for employees spending the majority of their time on the road are well established and governed by both domestic and EU legislation. The current lack of regulation around independent or self-employed drivers' hours, as well as many other aspects of health and safety, leaves businesses at risk.

The extent to which a business should be accountable and liable when it comes to 'gig workers' was tested just over a year ago, when two individuals took their case to the employment tribunal arguing that their basic employment rights had been stripped away given their status as 'independent contractors'. They won. This case has not only generated an important debate as to the status of gig workers, but has also highlighted the underlying health and safety risks of this form of employment. It is only a matter of time, then, before more mobile workers will argue for clearer rights and better protection, such as rest breaks and sick pay.

The Health and Safety Executive ("HSE") have indeed acknowledged the increasing importance of health and safety and the gig economy, and are reportedly following the issue closely in order to assess the possible health and safety impacts. Speaking at a British Council event in October, chair of HSE Martin Temple confirmed that HSE need to understand these dynamics and how to respond in a "realistic and practical way". But things are changing fast, and regulatory bodies must keep apace.

The present lack of clarity surrounding health and safety within the gig economy means that businesses, both large and small, should remain cautious when taking advantage of the flexibility and benefits that this form of employer-employee relationship brings.

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