For HeartUnions week, we explore why zero-hours workers are particularly vulnerable to injury and illness at work, and why this group of workers would benefit from joining a union.
The traditional health and safety regime in the UK is very much based on the permanent, full-time employee but over a third of workers do not fit that model. Nowhere is that more obvious than with zero-hours workers.
Although the employer has a legal duty to protect the health and safety of all workers, a survey by the safety professionals body, IOSH, found that, in practice, this rarely happens. Only around half of those on flexible hours even get a basic safety induction. It also appears that workers on zero-hours contracts are rarely offered any kind of training on health and safety and few risk assessments consider the different risks they face. One of those risks is that they may have several jobs, so if they are exposed to chemicals, their exposure levels could be far higher than the employer estimates.
Many of the zero-hours workers who are termed “self-employed” are in an even worse position. Employers rarely accept responsibility for their health and safety, with no risk assessments on their jobs, PPE or training. Often if safety training is required, the workers who are designated “self-employed” have to pay for it themselves.
It is also more difficult for zero-hours workers to access their rights under the Working Time Directive if they are working for more than one employer. The law says that employers cannot prevent zero-hours workers from working for multiple employers. So many are working an unhealthy number of hours or their hours are scattered throughout the day, meaning they cannot get a decent rest period even to sleep.
For a lot of workers on zero-hour contracts, not knowing when they will be working, or how much they will get at the end of any week is hugely stressful, but I have never heard of an employer including that in a risk assessment despite the legal requirement to do so.
We also know that zero-hours workers are far less likely to be in a union or to have a safety representative. Workplaces with a union and safety representatives have half the serious injuries compared to those that do not, so that is likely to be a significant factor in the safety of zero-hours workers.
Unfortunately, there are no published figures on the injury or illness rates for zero-hours workers. Because two thirds are working without sick pay, they are not only more likely to come in when they are ill, they often just leave if they get ill or injured. This means that even employers have no idea how many people are sick or leave through injury or illness.
Zero-hours workers are often found in high-risk sectors like cleaning and social care, where musculoskeletal disorders and some skin and lung diseases are more common, or in catering where there are a range of risks such as burns, slips, trip and falls etc. Many transport/courier jobs are also zero-hour, with high injury rates but employers taking no responsibility for either prevention, or supporting workers after an injury.
The HSE are aware that there is a problem. The Chair, Martin Temple, recently said “How do we instil the values of health and safety into employers, when the definition of an employer is uncertain? We need to understand these dynamics, and how we should respond in a realistic and practical way.” Certainly there is no evidence that the employers who rely on zero-hours contracts are going to step up to the mark without being forced to, so we do need the regulators to up their game and develop a strategy that is going to ensure that these sectors start accepting responsibility for their workers. That needs to include a robust inspection and enforcement regime.