Nearly everything you encounter in your day-to-day life is touched by temporary workers: from the TV you watch to the tires on your car to the bed you sleep in every night.
Temporary workers do it all. They move your packages around large distribution centers and sometimes deliver them to your door. But what’s the cost for the use of this temporary labor workforce, and how did we get here in the first place?
The Rise of Temporary Workers
America’s staffing companies hire 16 million temporary and contract employees per year, according to the American Staffing Association (ASA). Because of the massive labor shortages due to the ongoing ripple effects of COVID-19, the temporary worker industry is engaged and more highly utilized than ever before.
Temporary staffing has seen a major expansion in the employment landscape—and it’s a trend that’s here to stay. In the 1970s, it was characterized by administrative work. These days, while temporary work may include administrative positions, the reality is that many temporary workers perform light and heavy industrial labor.
We now have temporary workers in nearly every sector of the workforce performing jobs that are ever more complicated. As a result, the positions they work carry higher potential risk.
Historically, staffing agencies didn’t ask many questions when fulfilling requests for open positions. This resulted in situations where temporary employees were being injured and killed at a much higher rate than permanent employees.
For example, in 2012, a 20-year-old temporary worker died on his first day of work after being crushed by a palletizer machine. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited the employer with willful and serious violations for failure to protect employees.
“A worker’s first day at work shouldn’t be his last day on Earth,” said Dr. David Michaels, then-Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health. “Employers are responsible for ensuring the safe conditions of all their employees, including those who are temporary.”
Ultimately, this workplace tragedy resulted in OSHA creating the Temporary Worker Initiative in 2013 to focus on compliance with safety and health requirements, as temporary workers are entitled to the same protections as all other covered workers under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
OSHA has ramped up its activities during the Biden administration. Part of that is the result of the president appointing Doug Parker as the new assistant Secretary of Labor. Parker previously led Cal/OSHA, which has a reputation for being one of the toughest state OSHA programs. Parker’s appointment has reinvigorated federal OSHA, and we’re seeing increased enforcement actions and more tenacious investigations.
Full disclosure: We are staffing industry safety professionals. And, as regional safety managers with a combined 25 years of experience, we have observed many industries and host employer behaviors.
We have seen firsthand how temporary workers are utilized. Sometimes, the personal protective equipment (PPE) is subpar, such as eye protection that is not ANSI certified. Other times, workers are not provided the necessary PPE to begin with.
Temporary workers may be segregated into departments or shifts with more risk and less supervision. Sometimes, they aren’t even trained before being put to work. Often, they are asked to perform the least desirable jobs—and there are reasons for that.
As safety professionals working for a major staffing provider, we strive to meet our compliance expectations by documenting safety reviews through pre-assessment, inquiring about specific training that will be provided, and offering to partner with our clients on risk management. In some cases, we can even provide our clients with a higher level of education, such as OSHA outreach training, to educate middle management teams who directly work with our labor force.
Risk cannot be reduced to zero, even in the safest companies. Still, all employees have a personal responsibility—and obligation—to follow health and safety protocols while taking direction from leadership to safely perform their duties throughout the day. Furthermore, host employers have the legal responsibility to provide all workers with a safe and healthy workplace.
Why Accidents Happen
Workplace injuries of any frequency or severity happen for a reason and not because it was just a freak thing that people like to quickly explain away. They happen because of mistakes.
Employers make mistakes in planning out the equipment involved, their processes and maintaining compliance with regulatory requirements. Often, injuries occur because employees are not provided with effective training or supervision. This is particularly true for those who work in a temporary work environment and understand how quickly they might be replaced. Staffing agencies also struggle to ask the right questions and assess the risks before placing workers in these environments.
Compounding the problem is that temporary workers are eager to please. In many cases, they are hoping for a chance to “go permanent” with the company they’re embedded at. Temporary workers may make an error in judgement and do something they are not trained or skilled to do, thereby putting themselves and others at greater risk for injury.
Many companies will say “Safety is #1,” but that’s often not true. Satisfying the shareholders, keeping the lights on and fighting off competition are the top priorities. And when that shipment is late going out the door, you better believe that safety falls down a few spots on the list. That’s the issue with priorities; they often change based on the current business climate, leaving the value of safety in the rearview mirror.
But injuries can—and do—occur even when everyone’s focus is on safety. Even if you’re running a world-class worksite, you’re bound to encounter issues that need to be approached correctly. Otherwise, you risk having to chalk up extra names on your OSHA 300 log. That’s right; temporary workers’ injuries are recorded on host employer logs.
Task novelty—meaning workers will experience new work or perform jobs they do not have direct experience with, perhaps several times per year—only complicates the situation. This requires that safety professionals spend extra time and attention properly communicating to workers, both about the nuts and bolts of the job to be performed as well as the hazards associated with the job.
Even if you’re doing everything correctly and have a strong safety program, your success ultimately boils down to your supervisors. Do they see the big picture or are they chasing quotas? How do they treat the workers who report to them? Focusing on these line-lead folks has a multiplier effect and will likely have a dramatic impact on your safety statistics.
When we first walk into a facility, we look at the workers’ behaviors and overall happiness with the work they are performing. Are they focused and engaged? Or, do they look unhappy or possibly disorganized and chaotic in the performance of their duties? These kinds of observations often tell a lot about the overall level of risk in relation to the hazards that workers may be facing.
Research has proven that employee engagement is indicative of safety performance, productivity and profitability. In fact, having a great culture, quality supervisors who care about their workers and a clean workplace goes a long way toward allowing your people to focus on what’s important: safety.
When turnover becomes rampant, the loss of institutional knowledge can be crippling. Like making a photocopy of a photocopy, as the quality of training declines, the dilution of culture can quickly occur. If you’re not careful, you may end up with the blind leading the blind, occupationally speaking.
The Dangers Temp Workers Face
Based on what we have seen, unsafe workplaces with rising insurance premiums and experience modification rates are slowly being forced out of business because they are unable to compete with the safer, more efficient competitors in their marketplace. They’re being told by their insurance companies to upgrade the machine that’s responsible for the past few injuries and make some capital improvements in their facility. Otherwise, the insurance company will have to consider increasing their premiums.
However, a so-called smart and savvy businessperson may think of a cheaper way to reduce the risk in their facility. Rather than invest $3-plus million to upgrade the machine and improve production, they can remove their internal employees from that department. Instead, they’ll shift the risk over to a staffing agency and the temporary employees who now face the threat of harm each time they work a shift.
Thinking of temporary labor as a quick fix to host employer concerns without recognizing the myriad of complex issues involved with successful—and safe—engagement of temporary workers is what often gets companies in trouble, both with OSHA and their staffing agency.
Temporary workers are a value-add in many businesses but adding them to your workforce is not a cheap or easy fix. Bringing on temporary workers will almost always complicate an already complex situation. By adding joint employment into your labor equation, a host employer creates additional steps that need to be addressed to ensure everyone’s health and safety.
Safety professionals should ensure that the periodic training, safeguards and other programs they provide for internal employees are consistent for temporary workers. It will take more time and energy to ensure that temporary workers are ready to perform the task at hand—whether that’s due to lack of training, exposure or muscle memory—as compared to your experienced internal employees.
But, if you treat temporary workers well and give them the same equipment, access and attention, they’ll be more likely to integrate into your culture and become a fully productive member of your team. Don’t treat temporary workers differently. After all, they are doing the same work as your internal employees.
One of the benefits of the COVID-19 pandemic is that many companies couldn't continue their in-person training. As a result, they had to invest in remote, online, virtual reality/augmented reality and other safety training technologies to ensure that internal workers have the required skillset to perform their work. These same tools and platforms can be used to ensure temporary workers have the necessary training before starting on a new jobsite. Remember, as a general rule, staffing agencies will provide “generic awareness level” training, but OSHA expects the host employer to provide “site specific” training at the same level as their internal employees receive.
The pandemic has taught us that there is no such thing as too much training or communication—and that hearing from leadership helps build inclusion and belonging, which positively affects the safety culture, too.
Where do We go From Here?
Over the years, we have seen our fair share of worksites without dedicated EHS managers. We have also seen many companies cutting corners, both in terms of middle management and specialist positions, such as safety. And due to the ever-evolving nature of safety, it’s almost impossible for a company without a dedicated person (or team) to ever hope to comply with current regulations, much less new ones being legislated each year.
We now see the economy retracting, and with that comes the potential for downsizing or shifting full-time jobs to temporary or contract models. This often results in a less than smooth process for all employees, who face increasing distraction, anxiety and risk of injury due to the chaos.
As regional safety managers at a staffing agency, working with dedicated EHS teams that we can partner with to ensure our temporary workers are well guided in their jobs creates an environment for better business prosperity. Remember, every $1 invested into a safety program returns $4 to $6 on average, according to OSHA.
Today, there is an increased focus on temporary worker safety, primarily because it’s becoming a larger and more critical issue within the greater conversation about the labor market and the various supply chain hiccups over the past few years. The good news is that there are more health and safety resources now than ever before. In fact, the National Occupational Research Agenda (NORA), an initiative within the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recently published an extensive article focusing on protecting temporary workers.
OSHA’s Temporary Worker Initiative addresses some common risks involved with joint employment and offers resources on many topics, including health and safety training, recordkeeping, PPE, hazardous communications and heat-related Illnesses. Better yet, these resources are in plain language, a style of writing that emphasizes readability and comprehension; they are often published in more than one language. In addition, NIOSH, NORA and the ASA published about temporary labor safety, which we helped author.
The good news is that quality staffing agencies often have dedicated EHS professionals who can meet with companies, take a tour of the worksite and proactively discuss the intricacies of safely deploying temporary workers to support their business.
The importance of having top-tier, on-the-job health and safety practices for all workers has never been clearer. The past three years have seen unprecedented threats to worker safety. It’s high time to invest in a culture of safety for all employees, especially the temporary workers that businesses have grown to rely upon.
Tom Saylor is a regional safety manager at Aerotek, where he has worked for nearly seven years. He is a member of the American Staffing Association Safety Committee and the NORA Manufacturing Council. He previously worked for 10 years as a safety manager and a dive safety officer for Adventure Aquarium outside of Philadelphia, where he lives with his family.
John Swartos, CSP, is a regional safety manager at Aerotek. He has worked for 18 years in the staffing industry. He is a member of the American Staffing Association’s National Safety Committee and a past chairman of his local state ASA Chapter. Swartos is also a member of the National Occupational Research Agenda Traumatic Injury Prevention council.