Where Does Safety Fit into the Gig Economy?

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By: Guest author Brian Callahan, President and COO of ISN

The gig economy’s new form of on-demand employment is growing rapidly.

It was estimated recently that more than 86.5 million Americans have used an on-demand service. According to BIA/Kelsey, the total U.S. transaction value (annual fees paid by consumers) of the on-demand economy grew from $22 billion in 2015 to $57 billion by the end of 2018.

According to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, there are currently more gig workers than people employed in the entire information sector and IT services combined. And estimates project that the number of on-demand jobs will surpass the current number of jobs in finance (8.4 million) and construction (6.8 million) in 2021.

The investment community is bullish on this space as evidenced by HEB’s acquisition of Favor, Square’s acquisition of Caviar and recent IPOs for Lyft ($20B) and Uber ($75B). These have vaulted on-demand companies to the forefront of the investment community.

Clearly, the gig economy is changing the look of our nation’s workforce, and the safety implications are likely to grow as well.

What does this shift mean for safety?

Potentially a lot for both workers and consumers. Most companies operating in this space use a substantial number of independent contractors, performing only basic background, licensure and registration checks. Some companies also leverage their own technology and social media to function as additional safety mechanisms.

A few companies have moved to an employee model, with at least part of the hypothesis being that full-time employees are better trained and screened than temporary, independent contractors, creating a competitive advantage. Either way, safety must remain a priority.

Each workplace brings unique hazards which employees must prepare for in order to stay safe. The gig economy’s transient workforce makes it more difficult to retain highly trained employees. In addition, because laborers in the gig economy may work in a variety of environments each day with little to no safety oversight, they potentially face additional risks.

Consider perhaps the most well-known job in this gig economy: driving. Gig economy drivers, whether they provide ridesharing or delivery services, are often expected to interact with a mobile device, significantly increasing the risk of distracted driving. Meanwhile, unusual or long hours contribute to the increased risk of fatigued driving, which claims 1,550 lives each year. Oftentimes, employees in the gig economy work independently without regular contact with a supervisor or team member, which means there are few backup resources if the individual experiences a medical emergency, workplace violence or other type of incident. Independent workspaces can also pose hidden ergonomic hazards, leaving potential for musculoskeletal disorders, and the common slips, trips and falls.

An increase in safety focus and risk mitigation is generally precipitated by a large catastrophe or frequent incidents, yet in the gig economy it is unclear how workers, the public and the government can capture reliable data regarding these incidents. While we may hear of a particularly egregious incident in the on-demand economy anecdotally, small independent contractors are often exempt from reporting incident information. This is especially worrisome as “shared-ride services” constitute the most ubiquitous segment of the gig economy and given that transportation incidents account for almost half of on-the-job deaths across all industries, according to InjuryFacts®.

Without action, we cannot reduce these risks. “Hope”, unfortunately, is not a strategy for safety. Instead, we can encourage companies to use safety processes and tools for both regular and contract employees, which, when coupled with new technology, consumer demand, worker advocacy, competition, industry self-regulation, and government regulation, can help ensure that safety for this growing group of gig workers and customers is not an accident.

Brian Callahan is the President and Chief Operating Officer at ISN, a global leader in contractor and supplier information management. Brian also serves as the Vice Chair of the Campbell Institute Steering Committee.


Ratcliffe, Mitch. “Sizing the Local On-Demand Economy: 2016–2017.” BIA Advisory Services — Local Media Watch, BIA/Kelsey, 1 Feb. 2017, blog.biakelsey.com/index.php/2017/02/01/sizing-the-local-on-demand-economy-2016–2017/.

“About the Information Sector.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2 May 2019, www.bls.gov/iag/tgs/iag51.htm#about.

“2017 Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries Charts.” Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries (CFOI) — Current and Revised Data, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 18 Dec. 2018, www.bls.gov/iif/oshcfoi1.htm.

“On The Road.” Drowsy Driving, National Safety Council, www.nsc.org/road-safety/safety-topics/fatigued-driving.

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