Temporary Worker Safety is a Shared Responsibility

By Travis Rhoden

Most industries utilize the services of temporary staffing agencies from time to time. In some cases it is to help out with seasonal production demands, in others it may be a one-time or special project and in a few cases it is to transfer risk of a dangerous job to the staffing agency. Whatever the reason, employers who utilize temporary staffing services must realize that they have, at the least, a shared responsibility for the safety of these workers. In fact, OSHA’s top leadership reminded employers earlier this year that the agency requires that they ensure the health and safety of all workers under their supervision and control.

“We need to make it clear to supervisors, staffing and temp agencies, and other employers,” said OSHA director Dr. David Michaels, “that even if workers are temporary, they are entitled to the same safety and health rights and should be treated no differently from other workers.”

Unfortunately, OSHA has found in recent months that many temporary employees have not received adequate protections on the job, in particular required training. OSHA notes that temporary/staffing agencies have ultimate responsibility for providing their employees with basic safety and compliance training, such as hazard communication (HazCom) training for example. However, it is the client/host employer who generally is in position to provide the site-specific training (for example, training on the specific chemicals temporary workers will be exposed to while working at their facility, training on the facility’s lockout/tagout procedures, etc.).

In meeting the shared responsibility, host employers and temporary agencies should spell out in the staffing arrangement the responsibilities that both will fulfill to ensure compliance and safety of the temporary workers. This includes such issues such as:

  • General and site-specific training,
  • Purchase and provision of personal protective equipment (PPE),
  • Medical screening/surveillance and
  • Recordkeeping.

For host employers, this does not mean they can’t require the staffing agency to assume much of the burden, for example providing only workers who already have the necessary training (i.e., training with a specific chemical). But if the host employer doesn’t make such a request, then they should be prepared to conduct the onsite training of the temporary workers. To that point, it is a good practice for client employers to require documentation of prior training and, in some cases, evaluate the temporary employee’s knowledge/skill to ensure he has in fact received and understood the training, as temporary workers are often reluctant to admit they do not have the necessary skills.

Case in point, OSHA has highlighted a case where a temporary worker was hired to work in a manufacturing facility. He was assigned to run a machine. When he was asked if he knew how to run the machine, he replied that he did because he was afraid to admit that he did not know how to run the machine and thought that he would be let go. Thirty minutes later his arm was severed and was not able to be reattached.

Issues Facing Temporary Workers

Temporary workers have always faced safety challenges in the workplace—they face the typical “first day on the job,” which is inherently the riskiest, several times a year. With each new assignment (often a workplace’s most dangerous job), temporary workers are faced with a new set of procedures, hazards, equipment and culture.

Additionally, according to Department of Labor data presented at a special advisory committee meeting, temporary workers are 17-percent less likely to file for workers’ compensation, twice as likely to have claims rejected and receive less in medical aid and loss-time payments despite more loss-time days. Further, the data show that employers are two times more likely to question and protest temporary worker claim validity. Perhaps even more concerning, temporary workers are at an 88-percent higher rate for falls in manufacturing, a 400-percent higher rate for exposure to toxins and a higher rate for caught-in and struck-by injuries.

New OSHA Initiative

As part of an initiative launched earlier this year in response to several temporary worker fatalities, OSHA sent a memorandum to its regional administrators, directing field inspectors to assess whether employers who use temporary workers are complying with their safety responsibilities. Inspectors will use a newly created code in their information system to denote when temporary workers are exposed to safety and health violations.

Additionally, OSHA personnel will assess whether temporary workers received required training in a language and vocabulary they could understand. According to OSHA, the memo underscores the duty of employers to protect all workers from hazards.

While the division and extent of responsibility between staffing agencies and host employers are dependent upon the specific facts of each case, OSHA says that staffing agencies and host employers are jointly responsible for maintaining a safe work environment for temporary workers, including, for example, ensuring that training, hazard communication and recordkeeping requirements are fulfilled.

Both the temporary employer and the host employer will be cited if OSHA finds that both employers were responsible for the violative condition(s).

What Employers Should Do

All employers who utilize temporary workers should review their current policies for contracting, training, supervising and notifying staffing firms of issues. Contracts should clearly spell out which parties will fulfill the elements needed to keep temporary workers safe on the job. Employers must make certain to provide, at a minimum, the job-specific training temporary workers need. Staffing agencies must, at a minimum, provide foundational training, as well as evaluate the work environments where they will be placing workers. Periodically, both employers need to reevaluate the work arrangement and must notify each other prior to making changes. With strong collaboration between the host and staffing agency, temporary worker safety does not have to be less than that for “regular” employees; it also does not have to be a great burden on either employer.

About the Author

Travis Rhoden is a senior workplace safety editor with J. J. Keller & Associates Inc., a source for OSHA compliance products and services. Visit www.jjkeller.com for more information.