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“Hazards of the gig economy” – Temp workers at greater risk for workplace injury but poorly protected, say labor advocates [The Pump Handle]

Monday, November 7, 2016 9:57
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On a typical week, about 3 million people are on the job in the United States as temp workers, this according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. In September 2016, just shy of 3 million people were working as temps – an all-time high. Numbers can vary depending on how temp work is defined, but according to the BLS, temp jobs now account for about 2.4 percent of all U.S. private sector jobs. Yet, said National Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) co-executive director Jessica Martinez on a call with reporters, “Temp workers represent almost 17 percent – or one out of six – workplace fatalities.”

“Temps,” said Martinez, “are often asked to do the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs. They often don’t get the training and education often given to regular employees.”

When many people think of temp work, they may think of office work – administrative and secretarial work – the traditional face of the industry. But now, about 40 percent of all temp jobs are industrial. As the publication IndustryWeek wrote last year, “The Kelly Girl logo of long ago has been replaced by the temporary worker on the shop floor.” Temp workers include machinists, warehouse workers, furniture factory workers, truck drivers, construction workers, and agricultural workers – all high hazard jobs.

National COSH held its press call during the American Staffing Association’s annual conference to draw attention to what labor advocates say is the temp industry trade association’s failure to adequately support temp workers’ health and safety.

“Saving lives and reducing injuries should be at the top of the industry’s agenda. But with thousands of attendees and dozens of conference sessions, the American Staffing Association is paying scant attention to safety, training, employer responsibility and other issues that can make workplaces safer,” said Martinez.

“Many times large corporations hire time agencies that hire workers and these companies all what to make a profit so they push conditions down,” said Lou Kimmel, executive director of New Labor, a New Jersey-based workers’ center. And he said, “We often see a lot of finger pointing when it comes to taking responsibility for an injury or a death.”

Labor advocates expressed concern about the ASA conference’s lack of attention to worker health and safety given that OSHA has recently renewed its alliance with the ASA. “Through our continued alliance with the ASA, we will increase outreach to staffing agencies and host employers and provide information and education that is essential to protecting temporary workers,” said Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health, David Michaels in a press release.

“Sometimes people have a misperception of temporary staffing. They may think we aren’t as concerned about putting people in safe jobs. But that isn’t true at all,” said Staffmark, president and CEO – and ASA board member, Lesa Francis, “We are all very focused on putting people in safe environments,” said Francis in an ASA press release.

But longtime Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health volunteer Rick Rabin notes that when states and the federal government have proposed regulations or legislation to address problems temp workers commonly encounter – including dangerous work practices and payment problems – “the ASA has strongly opposed them.” For example,  “In Massachusetts,” says Rabin, “the Temporary Worker Right to Know Law was proposed, and eventually passed, to give temporary workers basic information on workplace rights and ban abusive practices related to transportation and check-cashing. The ASA’s Massachusetts chapter vehemently opposed the bill and held it up for at least two years.”

ASA has a short video posted called “Making Worker Safety a Priority” that includes not one single worker’s voice so it’s hard to tell what ASA member companies’ hires actually think of the organization’s program.

But here’s the recent safety record – or lack thereof – for U.S. temp workers:

So far this year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has investigated at least 59 serious incidents involving workers hired by temp agencies, 14 of them fatal.

In September, OSHA also cited an auto parts manufacturer, HP Pelzer and a staffing agency it uses, Sizemore, Inc., for exposing workers to ongoing fall, amputation, and  electrocution hazards at a Georgia plant. At the time of the inspection, there were 300 temp workers employed at the facility that makes parts for companies that include General Motors, Mercedes-Benz, and Fiat-Chrysler. Since last year, OSHA has also cited companies and the staffing agencies they work with for hazards that include amputation, failing to protect workers in trenches, for fire, heat and chemical exposure. Among the injuries suffered by temp workers – as described by OSHA – include finger amputations (one company was cited for trying to conceal these hazards), crushed fingers, a woman’s hand caught in a packaging machine, and electrocution. An investigation of such records published by ProPublica in 2013, found workplace injury rates were 36 to 72 percent higher for temporary and contract workers than for full-time employees.

And filling temp jobs is also now very big business. According to the American Staffing Association, the trade association for the U.S. temporary employment industry, the industries “sales” – what it earned from job searches, placements and contracts was about $130 billion in 2014.

Asked about the possibility of national legislation to better protect temp workers, Kimmel responded by saying, “Temp workers lack a national voice.” But that’s what groups like his, local and National COSH organizations are working to change.

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