Photograph by Scott Eells — Bloomberg via Getty Images
By Claire Zillman
March 5, 2015

Let’s start with some good news: The American workplace is much safer than it used to be. In 1970, 14,000 workers were killed on the job, about 38 workers per day. Today, with a much larger workforce, the rate has fallen to about 12 deaths per day.

Now, for the not-so-good. According to a new report by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, an ongoing trend is posing additional risks to worker safety: employers’ increasing reliance on temporary employees.

“More and more, workers are not actual employees of the employer who owns or controls the workplace where they work,” the report says. Indeed, over the last two decades, employment in the temporary help services has more than doubled and increasingly includes a larger share of workers in higher skill occupations. This trend has had a “significant, negative impact on the safety and health of U.S. workers,” OSHA says.

There’s a simple reason why: A company that relies on temporary employees has little financial incentive to ensure workers’ wellbeing. OSHA law doesn’t apply to employees who are classified as self-employed—as independent contractors often are—and a company isn’t responsible for paying pay workers’ compensation insurance premiums for workers it hires through a third party—that’s the responsibility of the hiring agency. Companies that rely on temp workers may not invest in training such staffers on safety measures. This is a critical oversight since temp workers—by the nature of their employment status—are more likely to encounter unfamiliar work environments. The report says that OSHA has recently investigated the deaths of numerous temp workers who were killed on their first days.

There’s evidence that temp workers are more likely to get injured on the job than their permanent counterparts. A study in Washington state found that temp workers had substantially higher rates for “caught in” and “struck by” injuries in the construction and manufacturing industry sector. At the same time, though, temp workers are less likely than permanent workers to receive workers’ compensation benefits. They’re more hesitant to report their injuries and file compensation claims with their staffing agency out of concern that they’ll miss out on future work assignments or out of confusion as to which employer is responsible, according to the report.

In those instances, the staff agency and the employer that hires temp workers both avoid paying for workplace injuries. Who picks up the tab? Workers, their families, and American taxpayers.

In addition to burdening individuals and families with medical expenses, there’s another crucial consequence from staffing agencies—and the companies that rely on them—dodging the cost of worker injuries. With no financial liability for dangerous workplaces, companies have little incentive to make them safer. And that doesn’t bode well for OSHA’s goal of reducing the 12 workplace deaths that occur every day to zero.

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