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Protecting contract workers in all industries

April 1, 2013

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Of the 4,609 workplace fatalities in 2011, 492 were contract workers, according to preliminary figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Advocacy groups say these temporary workers, commonly used in construction, farming and warehousing, are especially vulnerable to injuries because they typically perform risky work. Additionally, contract workers may lack formal education and English-language proficiency, and may not be given adequate safety education and training, according to a January report from the Washington-based advocacy group Center for Progressive Reform. CPR called on OSHA to take action to protect temporary workers, including requiring all employers to provide a minimum level of safety training and conducting enforcement “sweeps” in industries known to use a large amount of these workers.

In the opinion of Michael Wright, head of the Pittsburgh-based United Steelworkers’ Health, Safety and Environment Department, the organization that hires a contractor is ultimately responsible for ensuring a safe jobsite. However, he stressed that it does not let the contractor off the hook for protecting its employees. Under OSHA’s Multi-Employer Citation Policy, more than one employer (i.e., the owner and subcontractors) may be cited for violations of OSHA standards.

One issue Wright sees is that employers fail to extend safety rules to contractors. He referenced a steel company where employees were supposed to use non-sparking tools around flammable gases, but the same rule was not applied to contractors.

“We see examples every day where contractors are not as well-protected as the regular workforce,” Wright said. Either before the final selection is made or after a contractor is selected, the company hiring the contractor should require a job safety analysis, Wright said, and find out what type of safety personnel and personal protective equipment the contractor intends to use.

Noting that injuries could lead to civil lawsuits, Wright said it is in the contracting company’s best interest to provide a safe environment for every person onsite – from regular employees to contractors to deliverymen.

“They can’t avoid liability by saying this is all in the hands of the contractor,” he added. “If they’re the ones that create the hazard, they’re the ones that are going to be held accountable.”

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