Contractor Safety, Injuries and Illness

BLS Takes a Look at Fatalities Among Independent, ‘Gig Economy’ Workers

The Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) identified 662 fatal occupational injuries among independent workers in 2016 and 613 in 2017 in its first look at work-related fatalities among “gig workers.”

Gig economy, independent workers

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When the BLS broke out data from its Census of Fatal Occupational Injuries, several facts about independent workers stood out:

  • Older workers accounted for a greater percentage of work-related fatalities among independent workers;
  • Violence, including homicides and suicides, is relatively less frequent among independent workers than among other workers;
  • Falls to a lower level accounted for 101 percent more independent workers’ deaths than all other workers’ deaths; and
  • Independent entertainers, performers, athletes, and related workers had a very high ratio of fatalities, as did forest, conservation, and logging workers; supervisors of construction and extraction workers; fishing and hunting workers; grounds maintenance workers; and air transportation workers.

Workers 55 to 64 years old accounted for 26 percent of occupational fatalities among independent workers. The percentage of occupational fatalities of nonindependent workers 55 to 64 years old was 22 percent.

During the 2016–2017 period, 12 percent of occupational fatalities were incurred by independent workers—1,275 of the 10,337 total fatal occupational injuries. The majority of those (85 percent) were among independent contractors.

Roles Defined

The BLS defines “independent contractors” as workers who are self-employed; not represented by an agency; usually contracted on a per-event basis; and who perform temporary, skilled services. Examples of independent contractors include drivers, caterers, musicians, and landscapers.

The Bureau does not use the term “gig worker,” preferring the term “independent worker.” According to the BLS, “independent worker” includes a range of working arrangements, such as:

  • Intermediate contractors who are self-employed but connect with clients through an online marketplace or other intermediary, which include drivers hired via peer-to-peer ridesharing apps, dog walkers, and others who provide as-needed labor;
  • Directly employed on-call employees, like substitute teachers or call-in retail workers;
  • Day laborers who provide construction or other labor but have no ongoing employment arrangement; and
  • Temporary agency workers who are represented by an agency to work for a contracting firm or individual.

The jobs are short term and usually consist of a discrete task. Nearly all independent workers are self-employed. The worker and client must agree to terms of the work, including the work to be performed, duration of work, and payment for the job.

Emerging Safety Concern

Workers in nonstandard arrangements often have a higher injury rate than staff workers, John Howard, director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), has pointed out. Howard noted studies have found that:

  • Hospital agency nurses in the healthcare industry had higher rates of sharps injuries than their on-staff coworkers;
  • Agency workers in the petrochemical industry had higher rates of injury, especially those in maintenance and turnaround activities; and
  • Agency workers in plastics manufacturing had twice the injury rate than their on-staff coworkers.

The number and variety of available independent labor services continue to grow. Besides ridesharing services like Lyft and Uber, companies like Fiverr, Guru.com, and Upwork offer access to temporary freelance labor. Toptal offers highly skilled engineering talent on its online marketplace.

Concerns for employers include:

  • The BLS and NIOSH are only beginning to look at occupational safety and health issues in nonstandard employment—a full picture is not yet clear;
  • While some injured independent workers may be ineligible for workers’ compensation, employers could find themselves without the shield from liability that workers’ compensation offers; and
  • Employers may have few assurances that independent workers have adequate safety and health knowledge and training.