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An Overview on Health and Safety Risks for Food-delivery Workers

Food-delivery workers (FDWs) are a category that is particularly exposed to multiple health-related risks. As most of them move in cities by bicycles, e-bikes, motorcycles or hand scooters, a higher frequency of road and traffic-related incidents has been connected to this broad category of workers (Convery et al, 2020, p.2). In outer/rural areas, there is a higher number of FDWs moving by car. Still, they are exposed to the negative effects of long working shifts spent in vehicles, constantly driving around (Convery et al, 2020). In fact, in the food delivery world, working shifts are not homogeneously regulated. For this reason, delivery workers from all around the world are fighting for shorter, more regular shifts and, generally speaking, fairer conditions (for example, Sudré, 1 July, 2020, on the situation in Brazil). The desire to maximise income often induces food riders to underestimate possible risks related to their own behaviours: fatigue, driving/cycling while looking at the phone, speeding/rushing, crossing streets and pathways in the wrong direction, wearing dark clothes at night, repairing their vehicles by themselves, using low quality second-hand parts for repairs (Convery et al, 2020, p. 5).

In order to reduce health-related issues and general discomfort for delivery workers there are multiple dimensions on which to act upon. Examples of basic non-human factors are the provision of appropriate clothes/shoes and a punctual and regular maintenance of the vehicle, including the availability of a repair kit and other basic items (i.e., water, tissues, lock, etc.). For those using bicycles or motorcycles, the use of personal protective equipment (i.e. helmet, gloves) and the quality and design of the vehicle make a great difference, limiting vibration and increasing stability, thus reducing the probability of slipping, tripping or falling, but also preventing musculoskeletal disorders.

He remembered how he struggled to cycle up the hills, despite being trained and having a good bike. In fact, he explained that he preferred working with his own bike, as it was more comfortable. He also bitterly reported how sometimes, at night, he was risking his life by cycling up the stiff narrow roads of the hills with poor lighting

Read the full interview report, here

Among the human factors, there is the ability to safely conduct vehicles and to remain calm in a fast-paced working routine. Moreover, the ability to deal with demanding tasks and to react in a calm and thoughtful manner in case of unexpected/difficult situations. Such mitigating behaviours can in fact reduce several related risks (verbal and physical aggression as well as stress-related conditions).

“Sometimes when driving on the pavement people do not move, but almost voluntarily have me bump into them. When I have to drive on the pavement I try not to disturb pedestrians, I do not ring my bell and try to go at their pace. Cars are rather nice, but I have the feeling they treat me differently when I am working and  wearing Lieferando clothes compared to when I am in “civilian” clothes. I think that is because the riders are everywhere and people are annoyed by it, which is kind of understandable.”

Read the full interview report, here

There are other external factors that are more difficult to control: the prolonged exposure to traffic fumes and to climatic factors increasing the probability of respiratory diseases, for example. In some cases, repeated heavy lifting, pushing & pulling that could lead to chronic physical conditions. Furthermore, the impossibility of having regular work shifts that might impact the quality of sleep and, generally speaking, the negative effect such a fast-paced job has on the mental state of FDWs (Convery et al, 2020, p.4). On top of that, the precarious working conditions in which such workers operate also have a continuous, detrimental effect on their psychological dimension (see, Varga et al. 2020, Apouey and Stabile, 2021). On this topic, it is important to note that customers are experiencing anxiety, worries, a sense of loneliness and – in some cases – development of mental conditions, for quite the opposite reasons. In this case, it has been instead the impossibility to actually populate the streets due to lockdown phases and restrictions put in place in response to the Covid-19 pandemic that have globally fuelled such mental issues, as several recent and ongoing studies are exposing (Varga et al. 2020).

Related to the current health crisis, a further element was brought to light: the higher exposure to viruses and diseases (Ortiz-Prado, et al. 2020). For food-delivery workers, such risk is directly related to their working status. In fact, the so-called “gig workers” are mostly compared to self-employed/sub-contractors thus excluded from any welfare/financial compensations in place for the ongoing global health crisis. Moreover, they are receiving little support from governments (and from their platform employers) (see Collin et al, 2020). As a result, the needed supply of sanitizers and face masks is often an extra cost that such workers have to deduct from their already-low salary. A related negative effect can then be the choice to contain such costs as much as possible. For example, surfaces might be disinfected fewer times (even when using a rental bike to work, for example), face masks could be used more than once, reducing their efficacy in preventing the spread of Coronavirus. Still, FDWs are one of the categories that have continued crossing cities and meeting people throughout the phases of the pandemic, including during strict lockdown periods. Moreover, they are putting their own health further at risk by delivering food to those in self isolation (Convery et al, 2020).  

As the above overview shows, there are many aspects that can influence positively or negatively the everyday work of food delivery workers. Nonetheless, when it comes down to action, FDWs cannot truly estimate in advance the physical (and financial) risks of any of the accepted tasks. While platform services can use algorithms to elaborate inputs and to process data to perform fast calculation, humans cannot equally operate such objective and quick elaboration of data. More importantly, the everyday experience of FDWs proves that not even such automatic computation can prevent the risks taken by humans - or elaborate the best decision for them. On the contrary, algorithmic governance seems to be forcing FDWs to take risks in order to comply with what the machine evaluates as standard/compliant, in terms of time, distance and satisfactory performance.

Since customers do not always live in the same delivery zone as the restaurant they order from, it sometimes happens that riders are being “absorbed” into different areas during their shift. For example, Max explains:

“Especially when this happens in the peripheral areas this sucks. You may only have one MacDonalds there and you get stuck in this loophole and keep going back and forth between customers and the same restaurant for the entire shift.”

Read the full interview report, here

Therefore, each time a FDW chooses to accept a work, he or she cannot fully assess in advance whether it will be worth it in terms of distance, money and – most importantly – possible health and safety risks, in fact, oftentimes they do not have any choice of which orders they accept. In this sense, the entrepreneurial aspect of the job, promoted as positive, is really challenged by the impossibility of making thoughtful choices.

Similarly, the physical preconditions needed to perform such a job (being “fit to work”: able-bodied, young, possibly male) show that, behind these new forms of “entrepreneurial culture and technological rationalisation”, there is an increasing precariousness and lack of labour and welfare protection for atypical workers (Gregory, 2021, p. 317). Furthermore, the auto-selection effect happening at the source (on the topic, Milkman et al. 2021) among the ones deciding to take on a delivery job (or better, that are often forced to make such a choice for lack of better options), makes it even more difficult to grasp the multiple dynamics that take place in the world of food-delivery workers.

Image 1. Sponsored delivery job ad, appeared on the Facebook profile of one of the researchers of this study. The post says: "deliver food with Just Eat and arrange your working schedule according to your availability. Find out more details and the hourly fee of our job offer” (May, 2021)

Being aware of the multitude of risks and elements influencing body/mental health and safety of food-delivery workers is a starting point to empower and to guide their decision-making process and actions, while putting public pressure on platform services and to public bodies to plan and implement better policies and compensations.

The increasing focus and research on the specific needs of gig-economy workers, and a better understanding on how they move and interact in urban space is casting a light on many previously undetected aspects that connect the digital with the factual, the social with the political. Apart from allowing the development of guides and best practices aimed at given tips and suggestions to food-delivery workers (see, for example, Kudasz et al. 2020), as well as steering policy-making, it is important to reflect on the shifting sociality and cultural geographies taking place in cities, increasing further the physical distance and mutual understanding.

“When the weather shit is when you most likely want to order that stuff in because you don't want to go out, but other people have to deliver the food for you [...] for people who are driving bicycles, I feel a bit guilty for sure.”

Read the full interview report, here

 As we order food safely seated on our couch, the very layout of our cities and the alienating conditions in which FDWs operate are perpetrating forms of social, political and spatial injustice. Everyone can contribute in starting to change things by raising awareness. Also, there are some very simple gestures that everyone can do to change a delivery worker’s day.

See also   A guide on etiquette based on riders’ suggestions

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READINGS:

Apouey, B. H., & Stabile, M. (2019). The Effects of Self and Temporary Employment on Mental Health: The Role of the Gig Economy in the UK. SSRN Electronic Journal. https://doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.3395144

CHUBB. (2020). Keeping Your Delivery Drivers Safe. CHUBB.

Collin, J., Ralston, R., Hill, S., & Westerman, L. (2020). Signalling Virtue, Promoting Harm - Unhealthy commodity industries and COVID-19. NCD Alliance, SPECTRUM.

Convery, E., Howard, E., Powell, Z., Wodak, S., Fung, B., Quinn, V., Taylor, M., Searle, B., & Vårhammar, A. (2020). Work health and safety perceptions of food delivery platforms in the gig economy. NSW Government.

Gregory, K. (2021). ‘My Life Is More Valuable Than This’: Understanding Risk among On-Demand Food Couriers in Edinburgh. Work, Employment and Society, 35(2), 316–331. https://doi.org/10.1177/0950017020969593 

Kudasz, F., Liddle, M., Makowski, K., & Schmitz-Felten, E. (2010). Delivery and despatch riders’ safety and health: A European review of good practice guidelines.

Milkman, R., Elliott-Negri, L., Griesbach, K., & Reich, A. (2021). Gender, Class, and the Gig Economy: The Case of Platform-Based Food Delivery. Critical Sociology, 47(3), 357–372. https://doi.org/10.1177/0896920520949631 

Ortiz-Prado, E., Henriquez-Trujillo, A. R., Rivera-Olivero, I. A., Lozada, T., & Garcia-Bereguiain, M. A. (2021). High prevalence of SARS-CoV-2 infection among food delivery riders. A case study from Quito, Ecuador. Science of The Total Environment, 770, 145225. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.145225 

Perkiö, M., Svynarenko, A., Mbare, B., & Savi, V. (2020). COVID-19 & Delivery Workers: health risks and essential help in the same package. Tampere University.

Sudré, L. (2020). 12 hour shifts and no rights: why delivery workers are striking for first time ever. Brasil de Fato.

Varga, T. V., Bu, F., Dissing, A. S., Elsenburg, L. K., Bustamante, J. J. H., Matta, J., van Zon, S. K. R., Brouwer, S., Bültmann, U., Fancourt, D., Hoeyer, K., Goldberg, M., Melchior, M., Strandberg-Larsen, K., Zins, M., Clotworthy, A., & Rod, N. H. (2021). Loneliness, worries, anxiety, and precautionary behaviours in response to the COVID-19 pandemic: A longitudinal analysis of 200,000 Western and Northern Europeans. The Lancet Regional Health - Europe, 2, 100020. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.lanepe.2020.100020