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Definition and taxonomy

The digital transition has been producing significant transformations in the European economic system. One of the most relevant is the emergence of digital labour platforms as new market players. Originally conceived as online marketplaces where the demand for services could meet the supply[1], digital labour platforms enhanced their role to the point of establishing a proper economic structure – the so-called platform economy – which can be distinguished from the traditional market and operates according to its specific rules.

The overall heterogeneity of the digital platform economy – namely, the fact that it includes a wide array of different activities in several job sectors – makes it difficult to outline a clear-cut definition of the phenomenon. Nevertheless, the pivotal role that it plays in shaping the current economic structure of the European Union (EU) makes it a central topic for both academic research and public institutions.

Building on findings from academic research of the last decade, as well as on recent studies carried out by other European institutions[2],[3],[4], the European Agency for Occupational Safety and Health (EU-OSHA) has defined digital platform work as “all paid labour provided through, on or mediated by an online platform”, whereas the digital platform is defined as “an online facility or marketplace” which facilitates the matching between demand and supply of labour. Accordingly, a digital platform worker is any person providing labour intermediated by a digital labour platform. Some features of platform work are also pointed out to integrate the definition: first, the use of algorithmic management to allocate tasks and monitor performance; second, the triangularity of employment relationship – namely, the involvement of three parties: customers, workers and the digital labour platform; finally, the prevalence of non-standard work arrangements and in particular the classification of platform workers as self-employed in most cases[5]. Notably, the definition provided by EU-OSHA puts the emphasis on those aspects of digital platform work that are more relevant to occupational safety and health (OSH) perspective.

It has to be noticed, moreover, that digital platform work shares some of its main features with other types of atypical work arrangements[1]. For instance, the triangularity of the employment relationship is similar to the one on which temporary agency work relies upon, while the fact that tasks are carried out away from the employer’s premises or at client’s premises is common to several jobs across many sectors (e.g. transport, cleaning, delivery). However, as discussed more in detail below (see section “Employment status”), in the case of platform work such features are very likely to result in the classification of workers as self-employed, which in many cases is in fact a misclassification. The fact that self-employed workers fall out of the scope of the EU OSH Framework Directive and most of its national transposition raises concern in terms of OSH responsibilities and is reported to aggravate the OSH conditions for the affected workers.

Along with the definition, EU-OSHA has also adopted a taxonomy that allows to classify and distinguish different types of digital platform work according to three dimensions[3]. First, the format of labour provision, which can be online or on location. Examples of online platform work are remote programming and online content review, whereas parcel delivery, cleaning services and maintenance activities are examples of on-location platform work. Notably, the distinction between online and on-location platform work only refers to the place where the task is carried out, whereas the match between demand and supply always occurs online, through the digital platform website or application. Second, the skill level required to carry out the task, which can be low or high. Third, the level of control exercised by the platform on the worker, which refers to “the extent of the hierarchical power and managerial prerogatives that a digital labour platform deploys in its relationship with digital platform workers”[3]. The level of control is not a binary variable and can range on a spectrum between low level of control – typical of websites playing the mere role of intermediaries – and strong hierarchical control. The degree of worker’s autonomy is inversely related to the level of control exercised by the digital platform. While digital platform work is supposed to improve work flexibility, in practice the use of algorithmic management – which is key to the functioning of digital platforms and the control they exert over digital platform workers – may be associated with worker’s loss of job control and with an overall reduction of their autonomy. This issue will be further discussed below (see section “Algorithmic management”).

Employment opportunities

Platform work constitutes a modest but growing share of the digital economy[6]. Digital platform workforce is heterogeneous in composition, showing the prevalence of young males with a degree level of education and living in an urban environment with family and children[7],[8],[9]. Digital platform work creates opportunities for both workers and platforms themselves. On the worker side, platforms lower barriers to access labour market – as in general the only requirement to get into it is to create an account on the platform website or application, unless additional requirements are needed for specific tasks (for instance, driving licence for taxi drivers). The increase in accessibility of the labour market is likely to create new employment opportunities, especially for workers facing difficulties in accessing traditional markets (e.g. migrant people and people with poor health or disabilities)[7],[8]. Furthermore, the way platform work is organised may improve workers’ autonomy and flexibility, as it allows them to carry out tasks from any place and at any time, as well as to accept or reject tasks according to their availability. The possibility to manage work schedule in a flexible way makes platform work compatible with other responsibilities such as caregiving[10]. On the platform side, the geographic dispersion of workforce allows platforms to access both local and global labour supply. Moreover, flexible work arrangements improve efficiency and enhance productivity[8]. As a final remark, it has to be noticed that the platform economy is likely to include activities that were previously carried out informally, like domestic work, thus helping shed light on the grey economy[5].

OSH risks

As platform work encompasses a wide array of different tasks, which are performed in different locations, identifying OSH risks associated to it is a complex duty. Generally speaking, platform workers are exposed to the same risk factors as workers performing the same tasks in the traditional economy. However, such risk factors seem to be aggravated by the way platform work is organised[2],[5]. After drawing a picture of the most reported risk factors described in the literature on digital platform work, this section will discuss the inherent aspects of it which aggravate such risks.

Exposure to physical risk factors depends on whether digital platform work is carried out on-location or online[11]. Physical risks associated to on-location platform work – such as cleaning, handiwork, delivery and taxy driving – are safety risks, ergonomic risks and exposure to dangerous substances (e.g. chemicals) and physical agents (e.g. noise, vibration, radiation)[5]. Conversely, online platform workers are exposed to risk factors similar to those associated to office and sedentary work in the traditional economy, namely, poor postures, prolonged sitting and poor lighting, which may result in negative health outcomes such as musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), cardiovascular diseases, visual fatigue and diabetes[5].

Regarding psychosocial risks, work-related stress is extensively reported in association to any type of platform work[5]. Stress may be triggered by the algorithms used to manage task allocation, monitor workers’ behaviour and evaluate performance. Furthermore, workers may be exposed to violence and harassment when interacting with clients. While this is particularly true in the case of on-location platform work, online platform workers may also experience cyberbullying and harassment and they could be exposed to offensive content, as in the case of online content reviewers[12].

OSH Aggravating factors

As mentioned, platform workers are exposed to the same kind of risks as workers performing similar tasks in the traditional economy. The inherent aspects of platform work and the way it is organised that are proven to amplify risk exposure and aggravate their impact on workers’ safety and health are listed here below.

Employment status

The lack of clarity about the employment status of platform workers makes it difficult to classify their employment relationship with the platform[1],[2],[5]. This results from different factors. First, the triangular relationship characterising platform work arrangements (involving clients, platform workers and the platform itself), radically different from the traditional binary relationship between employer and employee. Second, the high turnover characterizing platform labour market, together with the workforce geographical dispersion. Third, the degree of autonomy that workers enjoy in terms of where and when to carry out tasks – although in practice the use of algorithmic management  may severely reduce workers’ control over their tasks. On top of these features, platforms tend to explicitly clarify in their ‘terms and conditions’ that no employment relationship binds them to platform workers, as they consider playing the mere role of intermediary between workers and customers[1]. As a result, in spite of many elements suggesting the contrary, platform workers are commonly classified as self-employed. In most cases this is a misclassification of actual employment status, especially when the platform does exercise substantial control over worker’s activity[5]. Notably, misclassification is more likely to occur in the case of low-skilled and on-location platform work, falling in job categories normally associated with poorer working conditions[4].

As mentioned above (see section “Definition and taxonomy”), digital platform work shares some organisational features – namely, the existence of a triangular relationship and the dispersion of workforce – with other kind of non-standard work arrangements, respectively, temporary agency work and work performed away from the employer’s premises or at clients’ premises (e.g. transport, cleaning, delivery). However, only in the case of digital platform work such features result in the overall classification of workers as self-employed, which produces negative consequences from OSH perspective. First, since the OSH legislation at the EU level and in most EU member states is only applicable when an employment relationship exists, self-employed platform workers are not covered by such legislation. Therefore, digital platforms are not liable to fulfil the legal OSH obligations falling under employers’ responsibility, and the responsibility for OSH management is shifted to individual platform workers, which in turn may not have the necessary competences, awareness and resources5. Second, in contrast with jobs in the traditional economy, platform workers are supposed to bring and use their own equipment, tools and materials to carry out tasks, which however may not meet the standard OSH requirements[4]. This issue applies to both on-location and online jobs (e.g.  bicycle and scooters for delivery workers, personal protective equipment (PPE) for construction workers, teleworking equipment for online content reviewers). Finally, another consequence of being classified as self-employed is the lack of collective representation and organisation, which is a crucial dimension of work protection and of OSH management[3],[5],[13].

Algorithmic management

The use of algorithmic management to monitor workers’ behaviour and evaluate their performance may result in negative OSH outcomes and is reported as an aggravating factor related to platform work[5]. Algorithmic management consists in the use of individual and environmental data coming from digitalised work processes as input for software algorithms which in turn, as output, provide support to companies’ decisions-making to optimise resources management, streamline workflows and increase productivity. Such data may include information about workers’ behaviour and performance. Since algorithms are set in a way that maximises overall productivity, workers are induced to work more efficiently, and tasks are more likely allocated to workers obtaining high performance rates. Workers’ monitoring and performance evaluation – which can be perceived as a system of digital surveillance – may rise OSH concerns. As a result of workflow optimisation, workers may end up working at a higher pace, following the rhythm dictated by the technology and having reduced time for breaks. The increase in workload and the need to respect tight deadlines to keep the pace imposed by the algorithm may induce workers to take shortcuts to finalise their tasks and overlook OSH practices that are time-consuming[14]. Moreover, the feeling of being under surveillance may trigger irrational behaviours and self-censorship[15]. In order to get new tasks and avoid that their account is deactivated because of prolonged inactivity, workers may be forced to spend long hours online and accept any task – even those for which they are not qualified. Therefore, the stress factor associated to overload and long hours online comes together with higher risk exposure due to lack of qualification and experience[5]. Furthermore, the need to keep high customer satisfaction rates makes the interaction with clients more stressing, forcing workers to hide their feeling and emotions, and even to accept abusive or harassing behaviours.

Independently of the task that is performed, then, the way platforms use algorithmic management aggravates risk exposure, both in terms of physical and psychosocial risks. Notably, algorithmic management is not exclusively related to digital platforms – indeed, it is becoming increasingly common in more traditional work settings. However, the peculiar isolation that characterizes platform work seems to aggravate the negative impact of algorithmic management. Platform workers normally do not have easy access to direct communication with a person from the management: the fact of interacting with an automatic digital system makes it more difficult to negotiate the workload and ask clarifications about the tasks, resulting in a shift of power towards the platform[5].

Isolation and lack of social support

There are some features of platform work organisation associated to workers’ isolation: first, the lack of communication with and support from human managers and supervisors; second, the lack of interaction with peers, resulting from the global dispersion of workforce and the high level of turnover. Moreover, the use of algorithmic management and gamification for tasks allocation may induce workers to compete against each other to get new tasks[5]. Some negative aspects of isolation have already been mentioned above: in particular, his detrimental consequences in terms of workers’ collective organisation and negotiating power. More generally, isolation is reported as a psychosocial risk factors even beyond the context of digital platform, for instance in remote and hybrid work arrangements[16]. The lack of interaction with colleagues and the lack of feedback and recognition from the management – in short, the lack of social support traditionally provided by the work environment – are associated to work-related stress which in turn may produce negative outcomes on mental health, such as feeling of loneliness, anxiety, depression and burnout[5],[16].

Work-life balance

Another consequence of workers’ isolation, in particular for online platform workers who carry out their tasks from home, is that the boundaries between private and professional life tend to blur[5]. The lack of a sharp separation between working time and private life makes it more likely to work longer hours and be overconnected. Moreover, for all platform workers, conflicting demands from private life (e.g. responsibilities for children care) and work tasks may stem from the clashing of work and personal commitments. Blurring boundaries between private and professional life may turn into conflicts within the family, as well as result in negative mental health outcomes such as anxiety, sleeping problems, depression, exhaustion and burnout[5].

Job insecurity, income instability and precariousness

Digital platform work is inherently associated to job and income insecurity[5]. On the one hand, the lack of a solid employment relationship and the temporary nature of tasks do not ensure workers a long-term career perspective. In addition to this, platforms do not provide training to develop new skills which may help in future career development. On the other hand, the fact that access to income depends on the number of tasks that are carried out by the worker increases the risk of income fragmentation and instability – for instance in case the worker is sick and cannot work – which is added to other concerns associated to the use of algorithmic management described above. Together with low pay per task that characterizes especially but not only low-skilled platform work, income fragmentation may result either in low income – which may not be enough to make a living – or in increased workload to get a decent overall pay. Finally, a high risk of precarious working conditions is associated to platform work[3]. Job insecurity, income instability and overall precariousness are reported as severe stress factors and may be associated to negative mental health outcomes such as burnout, depression and anxiety as well as physical issues such as fatigue[5].

Regulatory challenges

The emergence of the digital platform economy in recent years has called public institutions for a twofold effort: on the one hand, understand the phenomenon by promoting research and outlining definitions and taxonomies, on the other hand, regulate it to provide an up-to-date legal framework to address the challenges raised by digital platform work[1]. The attempt to incorporate digital platform activities within an effective legislative framework concerns many legal areas (e.g. tax law, labour law, competition and trade law, OSH law). From the OSH perspective, the urgent need to outline a legislative framework for platform work stems from the fact that non-standard work arrangements are not covered by existing OSH legislation in most EU countries. Therefore, as platform workers are classified by digital platforms as self-employed, the OSH obligations and responsibilities lie with the worker. If applying existing regulation is not an option in most cases, at least in the field of OSH, the design and implementation of new regulation is not straightforward. On the one hand, the heterogeneity of digital platform work and the variety of activities carried out – together with its dynamic and continuously evolving nature – challenge the legislative process, making digital platforms “moving targets” difficult to catch[1],[4]. On the other hand, digital platforms themselves do not seem to be in favour of the development of binding legislation. In line with such position, for instance, they tend to start their operations before checking compliance with existing legislation, with the aim to make it difficult to regulate their activity ex post. Moreover, in many cases working agreement between platforms and workers clearly state that no employment relationship exists, in a way that makes it difficult to apply existing regulation, which normally addresses traditional binary relationship between employer and employee[1].

Efforts to define an effective and up-to-date regulatory framework for digital platform work can be identified at both European and national level. To address the legislative gap, in 2021 the European Commission proposed a set of measures aimed to improve working conditions of people working though digital platforms[17]. The initiatives included a proposal for a Directive. The Directive is aimed to improve working conditions by dealing with the following main issues related to platform work: first, the employment status of people working through platforms; second, the use of algorithms to manage workforce; third, the need to ensure enforcement, transparency and traceability.

At national and local level, legislative initiatives in Italy and Spain were groundbreaking in addressing some of the most concerning issues related to digital platform work and providing legislative precedent for further legislation in other member states. The Riders’ law adopted in Spain in 2021 (Royal Decree Law 9/2021) is the first piece of national legislation to provide legal presumption of employment relationship and to introduce the right to “algorithmic transparency”[18]. First, the principle of rebuttable presumption of employment entails that platform workers are by default classified as employees, and in case of a litigation between the digital platform and the platform worker, the burden of proof falls on the platform, which has to demonstrate that such employment relationship does not exist. Second, according to the right to “algorithmic transparency", digital platforms must disclose “to some extent” information on how their algorithms work, in case the algorithms are used to manage workers. Notably, legal presumption of employment relationship only applies to platform workers in the delivery sector, whereas the provision about transparency applies to all digital platform without any limitation.

In Italy, the first relevant regulative framework emerged at local level: following the mobilisation of delivery drivers in 2017, the municipality of Bologna initiated a negotiation process between relevant stakeholders (municipality, trade unions, riders’ unions and digital platforms’ representatives) whose outcome was a voluntary agreement – the so-called “Charter of fundamental rights of digital labour in the urban context” – aimed at setting a minimum protection standard for platform workers[19]. Despite the local scope of the agreement and its voluntary nature, most of the relevant actors in the local delivery sector subscribed to it. However, the most remarkable contribution was to put digital platform work in the spotlight at national level and provide inspiration for a piece of national legislation, the Legislative Decree 101/2019. The law updates the legislative framework for platform workers in the delivery sectors – as designed in a previous law from 2015 (Legislative Decree 81/2015). First, it introduces transparency and information rights, as well as privacy and data protection rights. Second, it tackles income insecurity by ensuring a minimum hourly wage, thus partially decoupling income from the number of tasks carried out; moreover, it ensures extra pay in case of work carried out under specific circumstances (working at night, or during holidays or with bad weather conditions). Finally, it extends the scope of the so-called employer-organised work to all situations when the task is organised by the client through the digital platform, by removing the requirement that the clients organises both time and place of work. Although the employer-organised work does not qualify as dependent employment, OSH legislation applies to it.

It can be said that both the Italian and the Spanish legislative framework successfully tackle some of the main OSH concerns associated with platform work. On the one hand, rebuttable presumption of employment status and employer-organised work mitigate the effects of uncertainty about employment status and ensure the applicability of OSH legislation to platform worker – at least in the delivery sectors. On the other hand, algorithmic transparency and the right to information and data protection reduce exposure to risks associated with algorithmic management such as digital surveillance. In general, the establishment of minimum standards in terms of social protection and wage stability seems to address precariousness associated to platform work and improve working conditions, thus constituting a stepping stone for further national legislation in the field.


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[2] European Commission. (2020). Study to gather evidence on the working conditions of platform workers. Retrieved from

[3] European Parliament. (2020). The platform economy and precarious work. Retrieved from

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[9] Pesole, A., Brancati, C. U., Fernández-Macías, E., Biagi, F., & Vázquez, I. G. (2018). Platform workers in Europe: evidence from the COLLEEM survey. Luxembourg: Pubblication office of the European Union. Retrieved from 

[10] Spasova, S., Baeten, R., Coster, S., Ghailani, D., Peña-Casas, R., & Vanhercke, B. (2018). Challenges in long-term care in Europe — a study of national policies 2018. Directorate-General for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion, European Commission. Retrieved from 

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[15] EU-OSHA. (2022). Cognitive automation: implications for occupational safety and health. Retrieved from

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[17] European Commission. (2021, December 9). Retrieved from European Commission Press corner:

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[19]EU-OSHA. (2022). Italy: a national and local answer to the challenges of the platform economy. Retrieved from 

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Emmanuelle Brun
Maurizio Curtarelli