Death Of Temporary Worker: Bosses ‘Not Thinking Of Him As A Human Being’

Dangers Of Temporary Work

The use of contingent or temporary workers by U.S. employers has soared during the past two decades. In 1990, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 1.1 million temporary workers; as of August 2012, the number was 2.54 million, down slightly from pre-recession levels but climbing.

The American Staffing Association, a trade group, says the hiring of temporary workers allows employers to staff up at their busiest times and downsize during lulls. Temporary work enables employees to have flexible hours and “provides a bridge to permanent employment,” the group says on its website.

Recent research, however, suggests a dark side to contingent work.

study published in 2012 of nearly 4,000 amputations among workers in Illinois found that five of the 10 employers with the highest number of incidents were temporary employment agencies.

Each of the 10 temporary employers had between six and 12 amputations from 2000 through 2007. Most of the victims lost fingertips, but some lost legs, arms or hands.

The researchers, from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, called the glut of amputations a “public health emergency,” inflicting psychological and physical harm and costing billions.

Another study, published in 2010, found that temporary workers in Washington State had higher injury rates than permanent workers, based on a review of workers’ compensation claims. In particular, temporary workers were far more likely to be struck by or caught in machinery in the construction and manufacturing industries.

“Although there are no differences in the [OSHA] regulations between standard employment workers and temporary agency employed workers, those in temporary employment situations are for the most part a vulnerable population with few employment protections,” wrote the researchers, with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

In fact, experts say, there’s little incentive for host employers to rigorously train and supervise temporary workers because temporary staffing agencies carry their comp insurance. If an agency has a high number of injuries within its workforce, it — not the host employer — is penalized with higher premiums.

“This is really about an abdication of responsibility,” said Tom Juravich, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who has studied the temporary worker phenomenon. “If some of the jobs in your facility are undesirable and dangerous, you outsource them to people who won’t complain. If you have a direct worker who’s injured, you have an obligation to him through workers’ comp. If he’s a contingent worker, you don’t have that obligation.”

As part of a three-year study, researchers in Canada interviewed temporary workers and managers at temp agencies and client companies.

“To be frank,” one agency manager confided, “clients hire us to have temps do the jobs they don’t want to do.” Co-author Ellen MacEachen, of the University of Toronto and the Institute for Work and Health, said, “Even if [temporary workers] are not cheaper, they’re more disposable. … You can get rid of them when you want, and you don’t pay benefits.”

OSHA logoBureau of Labor Statistics numbers say temporary workers’ injuries are declining. Yet, new evidence suggests these injuries are undercounted.

In a BLS-funded project completed last summer, officials with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries interviewed 53 employers who had used temporary workers.

Only one-third said they would enter a temporary worker injury in their OSHA log, as the law requires. The others said they wouldn’t or claimed ignorance. “A lot of them just didn’t know” the rules, said Dr. David Bonauto, the department’s associate medical director.

The executive director of the Chicago Workers’ Collaborative, which advocates for temporary workers, says OSHA should target employers known to make heavy use of temporary staffing agencies.

“The rise of the staffing industry is partially to give companies a greater distance from regulation,” said Leone José Bicchieri. “OSHA needs to come up with different approaches for this rapidly growing sector” — meeting with temporary workers offsite, for example, so they’re not intimidated by supervisors.

Temporary workers are often reluctant to report injuries because they are so easily replaced, Bicchieri said.

“They have no power to speak up,” he said. “The whole temp industry was created so the client company has less liability. We need to put workplace injuries back on the plate of the client company.”

Stephen Dwyer, the American Staffing Association’s general counsel, cautioned against an OSHA crackdown on temporary employment agencies.

“To the extent that efforts become heavy-handed, there can be a disincentive, then, to using temporary workers,” Dwyer said, to the detriment of the workers, client employers and “the overall economy.”

In a statement, OSHA said it “feels strongly that temporary or contingent workers must be protected. They often work in low wage jobs with many job hazards — and employers must provide these workers with a safe workplace.”

The agency said it has brought a number of recent enforcement actions against employers for accidents involving temporary workers. In June 2012, for example, OSHA cited Tribe Mediterranean Foods for 18 alleged violations following the death of a worker at its plant in Taunton, Mass.

The worker — not properly trained, according to OSHA — was crushed by two rotating augers while cleaning a machine used to make hummus. The case was closed after Tribe agreed to fix hazards and pay a $540,000 fine.

“While some employers believe they are not responsible for temporary workers … OSHA requires that employers ensure the health and safety of all workers under their supervision,” the agency said

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