The British Occupational Hygiene Society, the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection, is emphatically supporting a recommendation which would see better health protection for workers in the gig economy gaining the same protection as employed workers. The proposal under consultation by the Health and Safety Executive, would give a direct right to PPE for casual workers and ensure that they could not be treated less favourably if they tried to protect themselves from dangerous health exposures at work.
The proposal comes following the successful judicial review of the government by the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain, the body that represents many of the cleaners, delivery drivers and casual staff, without whom the fight against coronavirus would not have been as effective. The High Court found that the UK government had failed to put in place direct protections for these “limb b)” workers who were not self-employed or in a contract of employment. The government had committed to do so in line with Directives on PPE and safety.
Commenting on the proposal, BOHS CEO, Professor Kevin Bampton said “In the cut-throat world of the gig economy, this is an important issue. The loss of future opportunity to work because of an individual’s decision to protect their health is a real issue for many casual workers upon whom we depend. At present, there is no legal recourse or restriction on businesses to prevent them from disadvantaging casual workers who are simply trying to protect themselves from harm.”
The Society is strongly supportive of the closing of this loophole in the law. Although a failure to provide PPE to limb (b) workers may give rise to a breach of s. 3 of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974, which is a criminal offence or a few other specific regulations, it’s unlikely a worker in the gig economy would ever know how to raise it. Businesses also have to navigate complex duties. The Society points out that in reality, given the costs of PPE, the absence of any direct duty is further incentive for unscrupulous employers to engage casual workers, not provide PPE and to get rid of those who want to take steps to protect themselves.
The government can decide not to make any changes, for example if it imposed too great a burden on industry or cost too much for too little effect. However, the cost of occupational illnesses such as COPD to the public purse are estimated by the Society to be in the region of £200,000 per person. The society believes that failure to act will add to the billions of pounds of avoidable health and social care costs that are caused by insufficient workplace health protection.
In addition, the BOHS is concerned that behaviours which are permitted in the grey or informal economy heavily influence social acceptability of low health protection. If an employee works alongside a casual worker and there is a lower standard for the causal worker, this may affect the behaviours and standards for the employee in a negative way and their own risk perception. The HSE estimates that 1.6 million people suffer from workplace illnesses and rates of respiratory illnesses contracted at work, ranging from cancers to asthma, have not declined in recent years. There is also a tendency historically for work to move from the formal to the informal economy where there is differentiation in costs and regulation. This would take more workers out of the ambit of employment health protections and ultimately result in more death and disease.
BOHS points out also that workers in the “gig economy” have very limited protections in relation to the economic security and working conditions. People work in the “gig economy” for a variety of reasons ranging from the desire to supplement income, to pay for University education or because they are unable to commit to regular employment because of care responsibilities. Flexible contracts and informal arrangements have developed to enable this, but which sit outside normal worker protections.
“A situation where a person has to subject themselves willingly to harm in order to maintain their economic security is inhumane and should, in all circumstances be dissuaded,” says BOHS President, Alison Margary. “As the Chartered Society for Worker Health protection, our position is to emphatically and publicly support closing this loophole. For moral, social and economic reasons, it is imperative that no person should be effectively forced to work, knowing that in doing so they are seriously threatening their health.”