Contractors Temporary workers Construction Bureau of Labor Statistics

Safety for temporary workers

The temp workforce is growing – and so is the number of injuries


Key points

  • Temporary workers face higher risks on the job due to a lack of training and a perception they could be seen as “disposable,” one expert says.
  • Communication and partnerships between staffing agencies and host employers are key to ensuring a safe work environment for temporary workers, stakeholders say.
  • A recent initiative by OSHA, prompted by reports of increased injuries to temporary workers, has the support of stakeholder groups.

It was Adrien Zamora’s first day on the job at a New York City construction site. The 28-year-old temporary worker was directed to perform restoration work on the façade of an 11-story building.

At the end of his workday in May 2012, Zamora slipped and­­ fell 40 feet onto a construction shed. He landed head-first and was killed, leaving behind a wife and two daughters.

Zamora was not provided with fall protection gear and had not received training on fall prevention.

These circumstances – a new workplace in a hazardous environment with little to no safety training or protective gear – are all too common for many temporary workers, some advocates allege.

“No worker’s first day on the job should be their last day of their life,” OSHA administrator David Michaels said in a November 2013 Bay Area Insider op-ed about the life-threatening hazards temporary workers face on the job.

The issue of temporary workers’ health and safety is not new. However, the growing size of the temporary work­­force, recent news reports of temporary workers dying on the first few days on the job and indications of increased injuries led OSHA to launch an initiative in April 2013 to better protect temporary workers.

“This is a huge problem,” said Peter Dooley, a senior consultant with the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health. However, determining the scope of the problem poses a challenge.

A growing group

The number of temporary workers in the United States varies depending on the source. In February 2005, contingent workers – defined as those who do not expect their jobs to last or reported their jobs as temporary – made up 4 percent of the total workforce, or about 5.7 million people, according to a Bureau of Labor Statistics report.

Workers that were identified as “temporary-help agency workers” accounted for about 1.2 million people in February 2005 – a number that more than doubled by 2013, when BLS reported 2.8 million temporary-help agency workers.

However, these figures may not include all temporary workers. An annual survey from consulting group MBO Partners found that the number of independent workers – which includes temporary workers, the self-employed and others – increased to 17 million in 2012 from 16 million in 2011. And the Alexandria, VA-based American Staffing Association says at least 11 million people are hired every year as temporary or contract workers.

Regardless of the metrics, stakeholders agree that the number of temporary workers is growing. Several reasons have been offered to explain the growth, but the simplest and most broadly accepted is economics.

“In theory, these workers are cheaper than a full-time worker,” said Scott Harris, director of EHS Advisory Services for Underwriters Laboratory, a consulting and certification company based in Northbrook, IL. “The host employer is not providing the benefits and overhead that a full-time worker would get.”

Greater risk

Data on the injury rates of temporary workers is not available outside of a few studies, according to Stephen Dwyer, general counsel for the American Staffing Association. This may have a lot to do with OSHA’s 300 log. When employers record an injury, they are not required to identify on the log whether the injured worker is temporary or permanent.

As Harris put it, no calculation exists for a temporary-worker injury rate. “We don’t have a number on it, so it’s not well-understood,” he said.

Several stakeholders believe temporary workers may face a greater risk of being injured on the job. According to Javier Garcia Hernandez, a construction worker and trainer for the Philadelphia Area Project on Occupational Safety and Health, working conditions for temporary workers, as well as immigrant and construction workers, are very poor.

“Most of the time, employers don’t care about us. Most of the time, they’re worried about the bottom line,” Hernandez said during a press conference announcing the release of a National COSH study of preventable workplace hazards.

Dooley hesitated to generalize employers of non-permanent employees as Hernandez did. However, he said workplaces using temporary workers may pay less attention to safety and have less sophisticated safety and health programs. Any workplace lacking a good safety management system will experience problems, he added.

Harris said the transient nature of the temporary workforce further complicates matters for host employers, who invest time and money to train temp workers. “If that person comes in for, say, a day and turns around and walks out and never comes back, then all that’s wasted,” he said. “A lot of effort and money got spent on someone who’s just never going to come back.”

As a result, some employers may skip certain training under the belief that temporary workers will soon leave.

If the employer does not provide proper training, Harris warned, temporary workers may not take the necessary precautions because they lack knowledge of the hazards.

Dooley agrees. “You put a person who’s on the job for hours, days, weeks in that system, and they are at a high risk because they don’t know and they’re not as familiar with the operations,” he said.

Temporary workers also may be unaware of their legal right to decline work they believe is unsafe. Additionally, Harris suggested many temporary workers may be trying for full-time employment and, as such, may be less likely to speak up.

All of this – lack of training, lack of information and a new environment – creates what Dooley called a “recipe for disaster” for temporary workers.

Next: Responsibility for recording, sample staffing firm checklist

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