Washington Update

Washington Update: Not a temporary problem

Protecting workers can be a difficult task, but a workforce that changes and moves makes the job even harder. Unfortunately that is the challenge facing OSHA when it comes to temporary workers.

Temporary workers – also known as contingent workers – are hired by companies through staffing agencies. They are not considered full-time employees by the host company, and temps may work for multiple employers throughout the course of a year.

Recently, OSHA has heard “many” reports of temporary employees becoming severely injured or killed on their first few days of work, agency administrator David Michaels told members of the National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health during a June 11 meeting in Washington.

One case included a 21-year-old temporary worker crushed to death while cleaning glass from under the hoist of a palletizing machine at a Florida bottling facility. The palletizer featured a large sign warning employees not to enter, but neither the man nor his co-workers were trained in lockout/tagout procedures, Michaels told the committee.

“This young man … was given a broom and told, ‘Go clean out that glass.’ Clearly, he didn’t feel he could say no,” Michaels said. “That first day on the job was his last day on Earth.”

Temporary service jobs have reached a peak of 2.6 million jobs, more than double the number from 20 years ago, according to Ben Seigel, an advisor to the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Policy. These jobs are not solely clerical help, as may have been the case 30 years ago. Today, temporary workers are just as likely to be employed in the production or warehouse sectors, Seigel said, and many can be found in the manufacturing industry.

As a result, temporary workers are placed in more dangerous jobs on average and face greater risk of injuries than non-temp workers. In addition, according to Siegel, temps are less likely to file for and receive workers’ compensation.

The growing body of research suggesting temporary workers are at greater risk of injury than regular employees does not surprise Michaels.

“We’ve known for 100 years that new workers have greater risk of injuries, and temporary workers can be new several times a year,” Michaels said.

During the meeting, Michaels made it clear that the law requiring all workers the right to safe working conditions applies to temporary workers as well. Staffing firms are just as responsible as the host employer in ensuring safe conditions, he said.

The problem, however, is OSHA’s ability to “get” to the staffing agency. If the firm has no supervisory role at the worksite, OSHA has no direct route to enforce the law on the staffing firm.

However, Michaels informed the committee that the agency is taking steps. Inspectors will be noting whether temporary workers are employed at a location, and will assess whether those temps have received the necessary training.

Committee members floated suggestions to the agency, including a possible National Emphasis Program centered on temporary workers, an idea Michaels had trouble envisioning. “How would we focus that? Where would we go?” Michaels asked. As Seigel noted, although large companies are known to be most likely to employ temps, little data exists on where these workers are specifically located.

Committee members also suggested asking NIOSH to research best practices and OSHA to issue plain-language documents concerning multi-employer responsibilities.

NACOSH Chair Linda Rae Murray warned that the committee and OSHA could fall behind on ensuring safety for workers with multiple employers. Cases are occurring now in which employers are attempting to skirt requirements by using loopholes in the law, she said, and the issue of temporary workers is a part of that.

“This sort of non-traditional work status … clearly is growing, and I feel like we’re playing catch-up,” Murray said. “If we don’t have a higher-level view on this … then we’re going to be chasing around all these folks.”

The opinions expressed in "Washington Update" do not necessarily reflect those of the National Safety Council or affiliated local Chapters.

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