Who is responsible for temporary worker safety?
Earlier this month, a temporary worker suffered a fatality due to a trench collapse in Huntsville, Alabama, while working on sewer line installation.
At first glance, this incident may seem like an innocent, tragic accident. Sometimes, even with all necessary precautions taken, like in-depth staff training, up-to-date equipment inspections, and highly-informed supervision, accidents still happen. However, it doesn’t take long before some essential elements of this situation piece together to reveal just how preventable and inexcusable it really was. The trench wasn’t cave-in protected. It hadn’t been adequately inspected. Safe means of entering and exiting weren’t established. And, a fact that is necessary in understanding how this incident unfolded and how it is being handled, the worker was temporary.
Because this employee wasn’t permanent, the actions following the incident are different. Who is to be held accountable? The host employer or the staffing agency? The answer is that both need to be reviewed. In short, it is the dual responsibility of the host employer and the staffing agency to provide a safe working environment for temporary workers. In the Huntsville case, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited both the worker’s host employer and staffing agency with serious violations and disregard for crucial workplace safety aspects, with combined fines reaching over $152,000.
The event in Huntsville is not uncommon, unfortunately. While employers’ responsibility to provide a safe workplace for their permanent workers is well-understood, and compliance to OSHA regulation is generally straightforward to monitor, responsibility for temporary workers is less clear due to the joint duty between host employer and staffing agency. If this joint relationship is weak, temporary workers can unfairly suffer consequences.
For example, if communication between the two sides isn’t clear, both could be assuming the other has prepared the temporary worker for the upcoming job, when in reality they haven’t. This then means the worker is walking into a job they aren’t sufficiently trained for that could potentially be life threatening.
Aside from this less awful, yet no less excusable, cause of negligence of temporary worker safety, OSHA has also expressed the concern that some employers view hiring temporary workers as a way to cut corners around their workplace safety obligations. The truth is, an employer’s duty of care is the same with every single one of their employees, both permanent and temporary: to provide a safe workplace with well-trained workers.
Here, OSHA outlines their suggested balance between host employer and staffing agency:
A key concept is that each employer should consider the hazards it is in a position to prevent and correct, and in a position to comply with OSHA standards. For example: staffing agencies might provide general safety and health training, and host employers provide specific training tailored to the particular workplace equipment/hazards.
- The key is communication between the agency and the host to ensure that the necessary protections are provided.
- Staffing agencies have a duty to inquire into the conditions of their workers' assigned workplaces. They must ensure that they are sending workers to a safe workplace.
- Ignorance of hazards is not an excuse.
- Staffing agencies need not become experts on specific workplace hazards, but they should determine what conditions exist at their client (host) agencies, what hazards may be encountered, and how best to ensure protection for the temporary workers.
- The staffing agency has the duty to inquire and verify that the host has fulfilled its responsibilities for a safe workplace.
- And, just as important: Host employers must treat temporary workers like any other workers in terms of training and safety and health protections.
OSHA’s suggestions are well in need of paying attention to, especially given that they have “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,” (source). Not only is protection for temporary workers is disproportionately lacking, they also seem to face more complex problems. For example, they are more likely to have their workers’ compensation claims rejected and receive less in financial aid.
It is clear that the domain of temporary worker safety is one that needs much dedication in order to keep more preventable incidents from occurring. Raising awareness of this issue and demanding employers and agencies to have better practices will hopefully allow us to see a dramatic and necessary shift in culture surround the temporary worker.