The Changing Structure of Work and its Implications for Worker Health, Safety and Wellbeing (US)

8th US/EU Joint Conference on Occupational Safety and Health
Ft. Worth, TX
September 16-19, 2015


The structure of work, particularly in terms of the relationship between employer and employee, is undergoing important changes in the 21st century, and these changes have significant implications for the protection of workers from workplace safety and health hazards. The recent International Labour Organization report "World Employment Social Outlook: The Changing Nature of Jobs" (2015) concludes that there is "a shift away from the standard employment model, in which workers earn wages and salaries in a dependent employment relationship vis-à-vis their employers, have stable jobs and work full time. In advanced economies, the standard employment model is less and less dominant."

Similarly, the US Government Accountability Office (GAO) evaluated the latest available sources and developed several key conclusions regarding both "core contingent workers" as well as a more broadly defined group of "contingent and alternative workers." These estimates, and the methodology which produced them, has not been the subject of a formal response by the agency with the primary responsibility for characterizing workforce conditions – the US Bureau of Labor Statistics (some of whose surveys were the basis of the GAO estimates).1 Nonetheless, the GAO's estimates are of great concern regarding the diminution of workplace protections due to the increasing importance of contingent work arrangements, both legal and illegal.

Several types of changes are occurring simultaneously. Firms in many sectors, particularly in manufacturing, but increasingly in others like retail and service, use specialized contractors and subcontractors to perform work that a firm's own employees once performed. Recent years have also seen an increase in the misclassification of wage employees as independent contractors, a practice sometimes called bogus self-employment, especially in the construction and domestic services sector (EU-OSHA European Risk Observatory 2014). Studies in the United States have estimated that one third or more of the construction workers in some states are misclassified as independent contractors (OSHA 2015). Legitimate forms of business organization such as LLCs, franchising, and third party management are being utilized in a growing number of cases as means to avoid legal responsibility or obfuscate the employer-employee relationship. Finally, the growth of the "shared" or "gig" economy, in which individuals ask or bid for specific jobs, is moving a growing number of workers out of traditional employer-employee relationships.

These changes have important implications for occupational safety and health, and, if not managed correctly, will result in increased risk of injury and illness among workers governed by these new relationships, as well as the other workers in the same locations. The increased presence of multiple levels of contractors at any workplace requires organized, concerted communications and coordination among all the employers and workers at the site. Failure to do this often results in the exposure of workers to preventable hazards. Similarly, temporary workers who are not trained in the required safe work practices and not informed of the hazards in the location to which they have been assigned are at increased risk of injury. All too often, the incentives facing the businesses involved in these complicated relationships do not push towards the type of coordination and supervision warranted by the arrangements.

According to EU OSHA, "changes in the nature of employment contracts and working time arrangements are associated with potentially damaging effects on worker health and wellbeing. Workers engaged in insecure and flexible contracts with unpredictable hours and volumes of work are more likely to suffer occupational injuries." (EU OSHA European Risk Observatory 2014). Workers employed in these new relationships face greater job insecurity, emotional stress, and in some cases lower wages as well. In some countries, social benefits that are linked to employment are lessened or eliminated for those workers involved. As a result, the changing structure of work also has important implications for overall wellbeing, including the psychosocial health, of workers.

A pan-European opinion poll (2013) revealed that 72% of workers felt that job reorganization or job insecurity was one of the most common causes of work-related stress, 66% attributed stress to "hours worked or workload" and 59% attributed stress to "being subject to unacceptable behaviors such as bullying or harassment."

At the same time, the first EU-OSHA ESENER survey found that over 40% of employers consider psychosocial risks at work more difficult to manage than "traditional" OSH risks (ESENER, 2010). More recently, ESENER-2 revealed that the most frequently reported psychosocial risk factors among European enterprises are 'having to deal with difficult customers, patients, pupils, etc.' (reported by 58%) and time pressure (reported by 43%). Nevertheless, only about one-third of companies surveyed had implemented an action plan to manage work-related stress. The main obstacles were identified as a 'reluctance to talk openly about those issues', 'a lack of awareness' and 'a lack of expertise' (ESENER-2, 2015). It is a costly problem. Studies suggest that work-related stress and psychosocial risks contribute to 50 - 60% of all lost working days. (EU-OSHA, 2014).

A recent trade union analysis of the health, safety and social risk factors in the food service industries in the EU and the US also reveals the franchising business model as [a] "leading example of the growing trend of 'fissured employment,' in which large transnational corporations outsource work to small employers or independent contractors and avoid responsibility for workplace standards." This analysis reviews both the clear health and safety risks, including non-compliance with mandatory standards, as well as violations of standards for wages, social benefits and trade union security. However, it also documents industry's corporate management systems which effectively require the franchise employers to limit stable employment arrangements, to reduce staffing, to impose excessive workloads, and to deny the vast majority of employees the regular schedules and minimum hours that would allow workers to earn a living wage. Under such conditions, it is unrealistic to expect either contingent workers or their franchise employers to assure even physically safe working conditions, much less a psychosocial environment that can support worker health.

This analysis also reveals that the same industry can indeed support a healthful business model within the EU. In Denmark, the industry's dominant corporate employer accepts responsibility for working conditions at franchisees, providing a base wage of €15.43 (including overtime premium pay), retirement pay, sick pay, and both guaranteed hours and 4-weeks advance scheduling notice. Similar conditions are also available in other OECD countries as well. Under such conditions, employer policies and practices are capable of promoting worker health and safety, including favorable psychosocial conditions.

In many cases, changes in employment structures and definitions impact the work of government agencies. Non-standard forms of employment create greater complexity in establishing employer responsibility for agencies already facing resource limitations. These agencies therefore face greater challenges enforcing labor regulations, working with key stakeholders, improving compliance with laws and regulations, as well as collecting employment-related taxes.

Some other consequences of the changing structure of work, work time and work process may also contribute to the increase or decrease of psychosocial risks at work. The growth of the services sector, the development of information and communication technologies, the need for new skills and changes in work-life balance, are often considered as correlated with these developments. Psychosocial risks can be linked with work organization, working time arrangements, contractual relations between the employer and worker, social relations, content of the job, the workload and time pressure. They constitute an emerging risk which affects mental and physical health in which gender, amongst other dimensions should be considered as a relevant issue in the analysis of those risks. Changes in the structure of work can also contribute to a decrease in such risks, for example, when more flexibility is given to workers to structure and determine when and where they do their work. On the other side, various private factors have an influence on work life and can increase psychosocial risks at work.


The objective of the Topic meeting will be:

  • To discuss the nature and scope of the changing structure of work, and the issues raised by these changes;
  • To compare the activities of governments, employers and unions in addressing these issues; and
  • To formulate new approaches to protecting the health, safety and well-being of workers faced with the changing nature of work in the 21st century.


EU-OSHA European Risk Observatory: 2014 Scoping study for a foresight on new and emerging occupational safety and health (OSH) risks and challenges

EU-OSHA: 2002 New forms of contractual relationships and the implications for occupational safety and health 2002

EFFAT (European Federation of Trade Unions in the Food, Agricultural and Tourism sectors), McJobs: Low Wages and Low Standards around the world, May, 2015. Accessible at:

International Labour Organization 2015 World Employment Social Outlook: The Changing Nature of Jobs2015

US Government Accountability Office: “Contingent Workforce: Size, Characteristics, Earnings and Benefits,” Report to Sens. Patty Murray and Kirsten Gillenbrand, April 20, 2015

US OSHA: Adding inequality to injury: The costs of failing to protect workers on the job 2015

Weil, D: The Fissured Workplace: Why Work Became So Bad for So Many and What Can Be Done to Improve It. 2014

1 See "Comparison of BLS Definitions of Contingent and Alternative Work Arrangements with Definition" in GAO Report "Contingent Workforce, Size, Characteristics, Earnings and Benefits (GAO-15-168R)," Anne Polivka, Supervisory Research Economist US BLS, June 10, 2015.