Since the advent of the Internet, online technology has tested workplace safety in various ways. The ease and efficiency of communication brought about by the invention of electronic mail in the early 1970s transformed workplace communication and information dissemination. But exchanging digital messages from an author to one or more recipients soon gave rise to issues like privacy breach, which occurs when someone sends confidential work correspondence or employee information to unintended recipients by mistake.
Before more recent permutations like Friendster, LinkedIn, MySpace and Facebook emerged, a website called Six Degrees came along in the late 1990s. This site has been largely credited as the first social-media site that allowed users to create profiles and “friend” other users. Today, social media has brought about a paradigm shift in how we network with peers and share our mundane, private moments on public, online bulletin boards. This has put workplace ethics and safety to the test once again, as cyberbullying, such as venting frustrations about work and criticizing one’s boss or colleague on these sites, sometimes costs people their jobs when such unprofessional conduct comes to light.
Now, the fracas surrounding Uber, which connects riders to drivers through apps, presents yet another oh&s challenge. Uber drivers are considered self-employed contractors, not employees. Their status as third-party providers has been widely criticized, as it absolves the company from various legal obligations and accountability, such as paying minimum wage and being held accountable for both public and driver safety. Unlike cabbies, Uber drivers are not licenced nor required to meet industry and safety standards.
There is also the issue of no-fault disability insurance. While many companies are covered by provincial workers’ compensation boards, so that employees who are injured at work can receive compensation for lost income, healthcare and other related costs, Uber drivers — being contractors — do not have this protection. An Uber driver in Toronto was caught in a bind in August, when he suffered injuries after his minivan collided with another vehicle while driving a fare. His insurance company disclaimed all benefits, as he was using his car for commercial purposes.
And then there is the issue of workplace violence. From China to Canada, numerous incidents of Uber drivers assaulting female riders have been reported. In August, a female passenger in China was robbed and sexually assaulted while taking an Uber ride. A similar incident took place in Toronto, where an Uber driver sexually assaulted a female rider in September.
In many ways, the ride-sharing service has pushed workplace safety into new territory. Uber has not only expanded the definition of “taxi”, but also created real workplaces and associated oh&s issues that have eluded regulations to date. And safety proponents are still finding their way in the dark.
Recently, the City of Toronto’s licencing committee rejected staff recommendations that would have opened the door to legalizing Uber in the city. While many see that decision as a first victory towards creating a more level playing field between conventional cab drivers and their app-enabled counterparts, the Internet will continue to push the envelope of occupational safety and shape the way we work.
Communicating emerging risks that have yet to be addressed by regulation will become increasingly important as regulations play catch-up. And public pressure stemming from enhanced awareness may be the most effective way to bring about greater corporate accountability. For that, social-media platforms can become an ally in spreading the word. Remember, technology cuts both ways.
Jean Lian is editor of OHS Canada.