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Work health and safety perceptions of food delivery platforms in the gig economy

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Executive Summary

Background and method

Food delivery workers (FDWs) for app-based food delivery platforms (FDPs) face a multitude of work health and safety (WHS) risks. While the number of incidents involving FDWs that have been reported to SafeWork NSW is low, there has been an exponential increase over the past three years, from one incident reported in 2017 to 19 in the first half of 2020 alone. The majority of these incidents are road and traffic related, but previous research has highlighted additional harms that FDWs risk on the job, including physical assault, intimidation, and verbal abuse.

FDWs are independent contractors and are thus primarily responsible for their own WHS. However, the FDPs that contract FDWs are also crucial stakeholders within the WHS landscape. FDPs and FDWs share a duty of care toward anyone involved in or impacted by their work, yet ambiguity remains over who is responsible for which aspects of WHS risk mitigation and management. While contractors in other industries, such as construction, must also manage their own WHS through measures such as procuring their own safety equipment and training, contractors on a construction site, unlike FDWs, work within an environment with a greater degree of control (e.g. rules about personal protective equipment (PPE) upon entering the site) and direct oversight (e.g. from other on-site staff or contractors). These environmental characteristics, in combination with demographic factors and limited WHS knowledge and skills (Convery, Morse, Fung, Wodak, Powell, Quinn, Taylor, Searle, & Vårhammar, 2020), means that FDWs may lack the capacity to fully and effectively manage WHS risks on their own.

While the risk profile and concerns of FDWs are emerging, limited research has explored the WHS perspectives and priorities of FDPs. Understanding these perspectives is critical in developing interventions that improve WHS for FDWs, as well as those impacted by their work, such as customers, restaurants, and members of the public.

The Behavioural Insights Team, in collaboration with Macquarie University and the Centre for Work Health and Safety, is undertaking a four-phase project that aims to improve the WHS of FDWs in the gig economy. The objective of Phase 1 was to describe the characteristics of FDWs and their WHS knowledge, concerns, and behaviours. The findings of Phase 1 are detailed in the report Work health and safety of food delivery workers in the gig economy (Convery et al., 2020). Phase 2 aimed to describe the characteristics of FDPs, their knowledge, concerns, and behaviours in relation to the WHS of those engaged, or caused to be engaged, by their operations. In Phase 3, the findings of Phases 1 and 2 will inform the development of proactive risk prevention activities to improve FDWs’ WHS, which will be co-designed with relevant stakeholders. In Phase 4, the outcomes of these prevention activities will be evaluated in the field.

This report details the results of Phase 2, in which we undertook semi-structured interviews with large, international FDPs; small, local FDPs, including those who deliver alcohol; and a vehicle hire company that supplies e-bikes and associated safety equipment directly to FDWs. We also drew on data collected during a “service safari”, in which members of the project team signed up to the major FDPs, went through onboarding, and worked a shift as a FDW.

Interview and service safari data were distilled into key insights. The insights were then synthesised with the opportunities and ideas presented in conjunction with our earlier research (Convery et al., 2020) to inform the subsequent two phases of the project, in which proactive risk prevention activities to improve the WHS of FDWs will be co-designed with stakeholders and trialled in the field.

Results and discussion

Characteristics of FDPs

All FDPs we interviewed operated within a contractor-based business model that uses automated systems to coordinate the behaviour of three stakeholders: FDWs, restaurants, and customers. Both the business model and the automated nature of their systems have important implications for FDWs’ WHS. FDPs reported a belief that they could offer, but not mandate, WHS training, the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and other WHS promotion mechanisms without risking the reclassification of FDWs from independent contractors to employees. For globally operating FDPs, the automated nature of the systems offers both challenges and opportunities in relation to WHS. For example, when WHS initiatives are relevant on a global scale (e.g. in response to COVID-19), this means that initiatives can be implemented and scaled up rapidly. However, as the systems are developed overseas, some FDPs reported that it can be difficult to implement app-based initiatives that are relevant to a local context. Global FDPs who did engage in locally focused WHS initiatives felt that the cost was high relative to the financial benefits. Smaller FDPs faced different WHS challenges. They appeared to have less automation and less WHS knowledge than larger FDPs.

WHS knowledge of FDPs

WHS knowledge among the FDPs we interviewed was relatively high. All FDPs named traffic accidents and COVID-19 as the primary WHS risks faced by FDWs. In contrast to our Phase 1 findings, in which FDWs reported that verbal abuse is both commonly experienced and a major WHS concern, only one FDP identified verbal abuse as a WHS risk. Almost all FDPs had created teams dedicated to FDW WHS, which they reported was driven by a desire to retain and satisfy FDWs. However, the FDPs also reported a belief that their WHS obligations to FDWs were minimal and that FDWs were ultimately responsible for their own WHS.

WHS behaviours of FDPs

All FDPs reported that they provided mechanisms to encourage both proactive WHS behaviours (those that FDWs engage in to manage risk) and reactive WHS behaviours (those that FDWs engage in after a WHS incident has already occurred). The proactive risk prevention activities they provide include WHS training resources for FDWs during the onboarding process, safety features within the app (such as maps that offer bicycle-specific navigation), and PPE to reduce risks associated with COVID-19. Methods for supporting reactive WHS behaviours were largely incident reporting mechanisms. Some FDPs acknowledged that despite the existence of these mechanisms, low reporting rates by FDWs was a concern. These FDPs suggested that lack of knowledge about how to report WHS incidents and fear on the part of the FDW about the repercussions of lodging a report may contribute to low reporting rates. These views are corroborated by our findings from Phase 1, in which relatively few FDWs reported accessing the WHS training resources provided by FDPs and a belief that reporting a WHS incident to their FDP could pose a threat to their continued employment and/or visa status (Convery et al., 2020).

WHS perceptions of vehicle hire companies

In contrast to FDPs, the vehicle hire company we interviewed reported an obligation to ensure vehicles complied with safety regulations and were properly maintained and serviced. They reported a perception that unsafe and poorly maintained vehicles were a key safety risk for FDWs. This view is supported by our Phase 1 findings, in which some FDWs reported self-servicing their vehicles without the requisite skill level, or with substandard or worn parts (Convery et al., 2020). In response, the vehicle provider we interviewed provides safety equipment and regular maintenance as part of their standard offering, which are included in their rental price.

Opportunities and ideas

Based on the insights of Phases 1 and 2 of the research, and a review of successful interventions from other policy areas, we have identified eight ideas to take forward to the co-design and trial phases of this project. These were presented earlier along with the insights from Phase 1 (Convery et al., 2020). Here, we have applied the insights from Phase 2 of the research to provide the FDPs’ perspective. The ideas are aimed specifically at changing behaviour to improve WHS and are all underpinned by behavioural science. Each idea was rated in terms of its impact and feasibility. Impact was estimated by assessing the approximate number of people the idea would directly affect and the extent to which the idea would directly or indirectly improve WHS. Feasibility was estimated by identifying the range of stakeholders who would need to “buy in” to the idea, assessing potential obstacles, and estimating costs.

We note that the ideas represent opportunities only, rather than firm recommendations. That is, the focus of the co-design and trial phases of this project is not limited to the ideas we have presented in this report, which are summarised in the following table.

Table 1: Summary of ideas for risk prevention activities.

Idea

Risks addressed

Impact

Feasibility

Increasing participation in safety training at onboarding through making it mandatory or using better choice architecture

Lack of familiarity with Australian road rules and understanding of WHS obligations

High

High

Alter the order acceptance process to minimise the risk of phone distraction

Distractions on the road

High

Medium

Benchmark the time that FDPs are allowed to give FDWs for each delivery using map APIs

Rushing behaviours; stress due to perceived threat of robbery

High

Medium

Reduce abuse by humanising FDWs to potential abusers

Abuse from businesses, customers, and members of the public

Medium

High

Use a rating system to alter restaurant behaviour

Abuse from businesses, customers, and members of the public; COVID-unsafe waiting behaviours; stress due to perceived threat of robbery

Medium

High

Facilitate mentor schemes or buddy systems

Lack of familiarity with location-specific WHS risks

Medium

Medium

Send targeted and triaged safety prompts and reminders at critical points

COVID-19 risks; weather-related risks; abuse

High

Low

Prompt FDWs to anonymously report near-miss and abuse hotspots, and map them

Abuse from businesses, customers, and members of the public; environmental risks like poorly lit roads

Medium

Medium