This article provides an overview of the state of occupational safety and health (OSH) for self-employed workers and examines why they are considered to be an at risk group. It describes how being self-employed can exclude workers from some of the protection that legislation provides and will consider the obstacles to securing good OSH. After describing the common problems, the article then provides recomendations for improving OSH for self-employed workers.
In 2009, self-employed workers accounted for about ten per cent of all employment in Europe. Since the recession the proportion of self-employed workers in some Euroepan Union (EU) countries has increased significantly. This increase is largely due to companies making greater use of short-term contracts, temporary employees, freelancers or self-employed people, as well as the development of new technology that has created more possibilities for people to become self-employed and perhaps work from home. The European Employment Strategy aims to increase the numbers of self-employed persons in the EU further, by encouraging the Member States to reduce tax and any social security obstacles to this form of economic activity.
Definitions of self-employed differ considerably across Member States. Eurofound defines a self-employed worker as being ‘an independent worker, who works independently of an employer, in contrast with an employee, who is subordinate to and dependent on an employer’. Pedersini and Coletto (2009) identify five basic categories of self-employment most commonly used in the relevant literature:
- Entrepreneurs, who run their business with the help of employees;
- Traditional ‘free professionals’, who, in order to work in their occupation, must meet specific requirements, abide by regulations and duty-bound codes and often pass examinations to be listed in public registers. They generally carry out their activities alone or in association with other professionals and with the help of a limited number of employees, if any;
- Craft-workers, traders and farmers, who represent the traditional forms of self-employment. These self-employed workers often work with their family members and possibly a small number of employees;
- Self-employed workers in skilled but unregulated occupations, sometimes referred to as ‘new professionals’;
- Self-employed workers in unskilled occupations, who run their business without the help of employees, but can sometimes be assisted by family members.
There is however some ambiguity, as some individuals who are contracted by agencies, who work in the same profession and organisation as employees, are contractually self-employed. In the context of this article, the term self-employed does not include employers, i.e. persons who work in their own business and employ at least one other person.
Self-employed workers are considered to be a group at risk, with a higher likelihood of being involved in a work-related accident or developing an occupational illness. This perception might be driven by the Council Recommendation 2003/134/EC that identifies the key OSH challenge as being: the number of self-employed workers who are largely outside the scope of the Union Directives on safety and health at work and who in certain Member States are not covered by OSH legislation; and their prevalence in certain ‘high-risk’ sectors, such as agriculture, fishing, construction and transport.
The underreporting of work-related non-fatal accidents, ill health and dangerous incidents is common amongst self-employed workers and it is therefore difficult to gain an accurate assessment of the state of OSH for this group of workers or to draw meaningful comparisons with the OSH of employed workers. However, the statistics for fatal accidents are more reliable and data from the United Kingdom would suggest that self-employed workers are more than twice as likely to suffer fatal accidents at work as employees.
Although many of the problems faced by self-employed workers are also applicable to employed workers, fewer interventions have been initiated within the self-employed workforce. This is despite the prevalence of work related illnesses and injuries amongst the self-employed being thought to be higher, and with 28% of self-employed workers reporting that they think their safety and health is at risk because of their work.
Legislation and regulation
The diversity that exists among self-employed persons has necessitated diverse forms of regulation. EU employment law in particular has focussed much attention on self-employed persons, mainly in areas such as free movement and equal treatment, to support the European Employment Strategy. Much of the content of these regulations has OSH implications, most of which is positive. However, increasing free movement of self-employed workers is likely to increase the number of migrant workers, who are themselves considered to be an at risk group.
Many self-employed workers are not covered by the Framework Directive 89/391/EEC and in some Member States they are not covered by the respective national OSH legislation. As a result, many self-employed workers might have inferior working conditions to those of employed workers and they are entitled to fewer state benefits. However, recent EU legislation has attempted to bridge this gap, with new rules being introduced in the Directive on Self-Employed Workers and Assisting Spouses, allowing women entrepreneurs at least 18 weeks maternity allowance. An amendment to the Working Time Directive has also introduced controversial new rules in relation to the working time of self-employed workers, which has previously been left unregulated. Specifically, it has imposed a 48-hour working week limit for all self-employed professional drivers.
Self-employed workers are not usually the focus of attention for most OSH inspectors and enforcement bodies. It has been argued that it is not in the public interest to prosecute self-employed workers following an accident if there was no risk to others and the victim had already suffered harm as a result of his/her own actions. However, a counter argument is that it is in the public interest to improve safety amongst self-employed workers as this would save society the cost of health, welfare and social care following accidents . It is also unlikely that the work of most, if not all, self-employed workers does not have the potential to affect others, whether this be people working alongside them, their clients, the public or emergency service personnel.
The fact that self-employed workers are not covered by safety and health legislation in some countries can lead to confusion and potentially to some unscrupulous employers describing their workers as being self-employed to shirk their OSH responsibilities.
Many self-employed workers find it difficult to invest time and money into OSH, whilst some consider OSH to be a cost rather than an investment and are reluctant to adopt safe ways of working that are time consuming or require expensive equipment. Most are unlikely to have access to occupational health services and health surveillance, and work commitments may make it difficult to see their Doctor. There may also be limited opportunities to attend training courses, as doing so often interferes with work commitments and/or leads to a loss of revenue. Many self-employed workers are self-taught and will have developed their own ways of working which may not necessarily be good practice. Their self-reliance can lead to them undertaking work that is outside their area of expertise and can make them reluctant to change their ways of working. These factors all too often result in self-employed workers being poorly equipped and in some cases lacking the necessary skills to perform their work safely.
Under-reporting of accidents and a lack of representation from unions and worker organisations means that it is difficult to assess the severity of some hazards and there is little opportunity to learn from others and develop good practice.
Social insurance provision for self-employed workers in some Member States is not comparable with that provided to employed workers. This, along with the lack of applicable OSH legislation, may encourage self-employed workers to take risks and undertake work when they are unfit to do so.
The nature of the work many self-employed workers undertake also puts them at risk. A relatively high proportion of self-employed workers operate in high risk sectors, such as agriculture, fishing, forestry, transport and construction . They often work on short term contracts and in environments that are unfamiliar. They may not be aware of some of the hazards associated with a particular workplace and/or may be unfamiliar with the relevant safety precautions.
Another reason for self-employed workers being classified as an ‘at risk group’ is the fact that the self-employed workforce includes a relatively high population of workers who belong to other vulnerable groups. For example, a relatively high proportion of self-employed domestic workers are female and migrants. The European Parliament identified these and other groups of workers as being vulnerable, irrespective of their employment status. The groups of workers that were identified by the European Parliament as being vulnerable are as follows:
- Ageing workers (55 and above)
- Workers with disabilities
- Young workers (18 to 24)
- Migrant workers
- Temporary workers
- Low-qualified workers.
Any of these workers who are also self-employed may be especially vulnerable due to the issues discussed in this article.
The self-employed work in a variety of environments; some may work in their own office and have control over their working environment, whereas others may work in other peoples’ premises and have no control. Some may not have a permanent place of work and may work in a variety of different environments, each having their own different characteristics and potential hazards.
Many self-employed workers do not have a dedicated ergonomically designed work area and instead have to carry out their work in a variety of ad hoc working environments, e.g. completing paperwork in vehicles or at the dining table. Some may work outdoors and are exposed to the weather, whereas others may work in confined spaces. They may not have easy access to hand washing facilities and toilets and may need to rely on convenience food, having limited opportunities to adopt a healthy diet.
Self-employed workers may be tempted to diversify in order to win more work and this can result in them undertaking tasks that they are not trained or equipped to carry out. Some self-employed workers can also feel pressurised to work long hours without taking breaks and some may actually do so willingly. On average, 43% of self-employed workers within the EU work in excess of 48 hours each week. Whatever their motivation, this can lead to fatigue and may result in accidents.
Lone working is common and often self-employed workers single-handedly perform tasks or lift loads that should ideally be carried out by more than one person. Should an accident occur, there may be no one on hand to provide assistance and it may be some time before an injured or trapped worker is found.
Because the working environments and indeed the work activities of self-employed workers are so varied, the combination of hazards to which they are exposed can be quite unique for some individuals. It is therefore difficult to produce OSH guidance targeting the self-employed as a whole, as some guidance will be particularly relevant to one group of workers but not at all relevant to another group. Furthermore, guidance targeted at a particular group of self-employed workers may not cover some of the hazards that are relevant to some of individuals within the group due to their specific work activities and environments. The range of hazards is so broad that it will not be addressed here in detail. Instead the specific aspects that are problematic for the self-employed are discussed.
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)
Many self-employed workers adopt working practices that are known to cause MSDs (e.g. manual handling and working postures) although the extent of the problem amongst the self-employed is unclear due to underreporting. Self-employed workers who work alone may lift loads that are heavier than they can comfortably manage because help is not at hand. Although having a varied range of work environments and work activities may in some respects be considered beneficial from a MSD point of view, it is also likely to mean that in many cases, these have not been ergonomically assessed and optimised. It is also likely that in a lot of cases, repetitive movements and static postures may still fill a significant proportion of the working day, with many self-employed workers continuously performing a particular task or spending hours each day in vehicles, etc.
Hazardous substances and agents
Most hazardous substances and agents do not necessarily appear to be hazardous and the dangers may not be obvious to some self-employed workers. They may not realise when it is necessary to take precautions or may not know what the appropriate precautions might be. Due to financial constraints and the fact that they may work in a variety of environments, self-employed workers may not follow the hierarchy of controls when, for example working with dangerous substances where personal protective equipment (PPE) is often their one and only form of defence. Selecting the appropriate PPE necessitates a good understanding of both the hazard and characteristics/limitations of the PPE. It is not uncommon for self-employed workers to use inappropriate PPE as their only form of protection in the misguided belief that it will keep them safe.
Stress and harassment
Self-employed workers are usually solely responsible for the satisfaction of their customers and for the success or otherwise of their business. It can be very stressful and in some cases confrontational when things do not go to plan and difficulties arise. According to the European Working Conditions Survey (EWCS), 25% of self-employed workers consider their work to be stressful, as opposed to 21% for paid employees. Being self-employed can be quite lonely and isolating and this can make self-employed workers a target for harassment and provides limited opportunities to discuss their concerns with others.
Activities requiring specialist equipment
Many self-employed workers are in the fortunate position of being in control of their own finances and can buy whatever equipment they need to do their job. However for some, financial constraints may not allow them to buy the equipment they need and if they carry out a diverse range of activities, they may be reluctant to invest money in expensive equipment that will only be use occasionally. These financial constraints can in some cases result in self-employed workers using equipment that is not fit for purpose or in a poor state of repair.
Health and wellbeing
Eurofound’s fourth EWCS indicates that self-employed workers consider themselves to be at greater risk than employees of becoming ill as a result of their work, with 46% of the self-employed reporting that work affects their health, compared with 33% of employees.
The pressure of running a business can make it difficult to achieve a healthy work-life balance. Work commitments can often be in conflict with a worker’s personal life and there may be limited opportunities to relax and unwind. Workers may also be reluctant to take time off if they are sick; they may continue to work despite being unwell and struggle to find the time to seek medical advice. Those who do not have a permanent place of work may also not have access to catering facilities and may struggle to adopt a healthy diet. These factors can have a detrimental effect on the long term health and wellbeing of self-employed workers.
The European Commission has identified that improving OSH for self-employed workers is continuing to grow in importance and in 2007, it published the Community Strategy 2007-2012, which identified an increased involvement of labour inspectors and increased awareness on the difficulties associated with the working conditions of self-employed workers as an important goal. Council Recommendation 2003/134/EC sets out a series of measures to improve OSH for self-employed workers. These are mainly focused around prevention policies as well as safety and health at work measures, such as awareness-raising campaigns, as well as providing access to training and health surveillance. The recommendation stresses the importance of understanding special risks existing in specific sectors and the specific nature of the relationship between contracting activities and self-employed workers . It encourages Member States to promote safety and health for self-employed workers through legislation, incentives, information campaigns and engagement of relevant stakeholders . A working party of the Advisory Committee on Safety and Health at work (ACSH) was set up in June 2010 to assist the Commission in the evaluation of the measures taken by each member state and the need for future action to protect self-employed workers.
The effectiveness of OSH measures for the self-employed is reliant on the measures being easily accessible and inexpensive. Published guidance, which includes information for the self-employed, can be a cost effective method of disseminating OSH information and is also easily accessible for workers with a busy schedule. Social media can be another efficient means of disseminating OSH information to self-employed workers within particular sectors. In the United Kingdom, the Construction Division of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) runs an e-mail bulletin service, which is aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and the self-employed. The HSE’s e-mail bulletin service has over 12,000 registered users and is believed to benefit thousands more through further cascading. The HSE also runs Safety and Health Awareness Days (SHADs) to promote simple and inexpensive precautions to avoid workers within a particular sector being killed, injured or made ill as a result of their work. These events are free to attend and are held at venues throughout the country. The duration of the events is typically limited to about four hours in an attempt to minimise disruption to those who attend. This format has proved to be very popular with self-employed workers as it provides them an opportunity to gain practical advice from trained instructors and discuss their concerns with others, whilst not being cost prohibitive or too disruptive to their day-to-day work.
Support schemes and networks are also seen as advantageous, as they can allow self-employed workers to learn from others within their sector and provide occupational health services, as well as being a central hub for OSH information and guidance. Provided they are well funded, they could also commission and coordinate much needed research into OSH issues affecting the self-employed within specific sectors.
Large companies can also play their part to improve OSH for the self-employed; a recent EU Green Paper on corporate social responsibility encourages large companies, who are predominantly better informed and resourced to deal with OSH matters and have fewer accidents, to share OSH expertise and equipment with their sub-contractors, and to include OSH requirements in the tendering and contract management process. It is believed that this will improve OSH for self-employed workers and those working for small companies, who are sub-contracted to larger companies. It is hoped that any OSH measures imposed or recommended by a large company will be adopted beyond the duration of the contract and will result in permanent improvements to working conditions.
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