Workplace Safety in the Gig Economy

Truck Driver
April 25, 2019
By Jean-Grégoire Manoukian

Are you familiar with the “gig economy”? If you’ve ever taken an Uber or a Lyft, then you have already interacted with the gig economy.

The gig economy refers to organizations that employ independent workers for short-term contracts. It is broad and includes different types of workers, from people who are full-time independent contractors (e.g. consultants) to people who drive for Uber or Lyft many hours a week.

In some cases, workers are small business owners, and in others they’re freelancers. Musicians, photographers, writers, truck drivers and tradespeople have traditionally been gig workers. Flexibility and independence are what attract people to the gig economy.

According to the CEO of Intuit, who is referenced in a Forbes article, “The gig economy …is now estimated to be about 34% of the workforce and expected to be 43% by the year 2020.” This was said in 2017. Also, 150 million workers in North America and Western Europe are engaged as independent contractors according to a Harvard Business Review article.

Given the growing importance of the gig economy, there have been issues raised around the status of workers under labor laws and the protections that they receive compared to other employees.

Safety at Uber and Waitr

Another area of interest is safety, and it is being discussed more frequently. For example, the Campbell Institute Symposium in February featured a session on EHS and the Gig Economy. The panel session included presentations from an organizational change consultant, as well as Uber and Waitr (a food delivery service similar to GrubHub).

The industry presenters spoke about how their companies specifically address worker and client health and safety. All presenters explained how organizational culture drives safety and safety performance, especially in the gig economy.

Steffi Bryson, Head of Safety and Consumer Protection Public Policy at Uber, emphasized the company’s commitment to driver and client safety, particularly for women. Bryson described the partnerships that the Uber Safety Advisory Board has with experts in human trafficking, domestic violence and road safety to make driving and riding with Uber safer for women.

Uber also met with over 100 women’s safety groups to learn about the safety concerns of women when participating in ride sharing, both as a driver and a passenger, and have implemented corporate-level training to increase empathy and raise awareness of women’s safety concerns.

Bryson said that fostering an environment where drivers and passengers feel free to report violence is key to increasing safety at Uber.

As for Waitr, the company is on its own safety journey. Joe Stough, President and COO of Waitr, explained that safety is tied closely to operational excellence. He shared research into operational excellence analytics showing that strengthening operational excellence processes (e.g. incident investigation, risk assessments, behavior-based safety) reduces risk, which can lead to fewer loss and incidents.

According to Stough, organizations that rank high in operational excellence and safety are often learning-minded, meaning they have strong team competency, and have engaged workforces with a strong reporting culture. To increase the safety of Waitr delivery drivers and reduce the risk of incidents, Waitr is currently focusing EHS efforts on leadership engagement, team building and reporting culture.

Foster a Culture of Psychological Safety

To protect workers in the gig economy, or any industry for that matter, Steven Simon of Culture Change Consultants says that organizations must foster an organizational culture of psychological safety, or creating space and opportunity for employees to speak up. Without psychological safety, the organizational environment shows a lack of engagement, cynicism and even fear.

Also, a space of psychological safety is an environment that encourages contribution, risk-taking, and creativity. When individuals are psychologically safe, they are not afraid to be themselves, point out problems, admit mistakes and ask for help. Psychologically safe teams perform more effectively, promote a learning environment and speak up at work.

For organizations operating in the gig economy, the key is to create a culture of openness and transparency where workers are invested in their own safety and the safety of others. Workers must know they won’t be penalized for reporting incidents and unsafe conditions.

Creating this atmosphere may be difficult for gig economy organizations where workers are contracted for short-term engagements. But this kind of culture change can lead to better outcomes and fewer incidents.

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Jean-Grégoire Manoukian

Content Thought Leader