According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, temporary workers are among the fastest growing sectors in the country, accounting for approximately four percent of the total workforce (approximately 5.7 million people). Temporary workers are most commonly found in office and administrative support, transportation, manufacturing, and construction.

Over the past few years, the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) has been receiving numerous reports of temporary workers sustaining fatal injures within their first few days on the job site. This may be attributed to the fact that temporary workers are not as well protected as full-time or contract workers when it comes to their safety or well-being. Employers don't have the same strong incentives in place to ensure the safety of these workers, since any accidents, injuries, or illnesses incurred by temporary workers won't affect the company’s OSHA recordable rates.

Although the issue of temporary workers’ health and safety is far from new, there has yet to be an adequate solution to the problem. This article will cover the unique challenges to ensuring the health and safety of temporary workers and offer advice that you can follow to ensure the safety of your workers, no matter their status.

Who Is Considered a Temporary Worker?

A temporary worker is a worker that is retained through a placement agency or personnel firm and assigned to the workplace to perform job tasks. Their temporary tenure in each particular assignment ranges from several hours to months.

Temporary Workers’ Health and Safety

Individuals may seek temporary employment because they face financial pressures, like dependents and debts, and need the work these jobs just to make ends meet. Unfortunately, this not only makes them more vulnerable but also an easier target for exploitation by an employer. In fact, some companies have started to assign more dangerous and high-risk jobs to temporary workers, knowing fully well that any potential incidents or accidents will not affect their organization’s OSHA recordables.

Some companies, moreover, use temporary workers as a way to avoid meeting all of the compliance obligations outlined in the OSHA Act. For instance, in December 2011, a temporary worker working in a Chicago skin cream and shampoo factory died after he was scalded by a citric acid solution. His supervisors failed to call 9-1-1 even as his skin was peeling from his body.

Also, in August 2012, a temporary worker in Jacksonville was crushed to death on his first day on the job at a bottling plant. He was asked by his supervisor to clean glass from underneath a machine that stacks goods onto pallets—according to OSHA, that was a task he was not trained to do (to learn more about the training of temporary workers, see Transient Workers vs Temporary Workers: Know Your Training Obligations).

These examples highlight the main challenge in addressing the issue of temporary worker’s health and safety: there is not enough clarity about whose responsibility it is to protect temporary workers.

The Complex Employment Relationship

Temporary workers are technically employees of the staffing or placement agency. However, they are required to perform duties for the clients of these agencies (the organizations). Therefore, while it may be both the duty of the placement agency and the client organization to protect temporary workers, the responsibility lies with those supervising the work.

Temporary workers make up a significant part of any organization’s supply chain. Many of these organizations lack visibility and transparency when it comes to their suppliers' activities, labor practices, policies, and so on. They tend to trust that these third party service providers will uphold the health and safety practices that align with the organization’s existing expectations, safety culture, and corporate social responsibility. Therefore, when suppliers do not act responsibly, it reflects poorly on the organization, compromising their reputation and public trust (for more on this, see How to Look After Your Business' Safety Reputation).

It is this complex employment relationship between temporary workers, staffing and placement agencies, and client employers that creates the safety loopholes that leave temporary workers more vulnerable to fatal workplace accidents and injuries.

Furthermore, the fact that supply chains are globalizing, leading to increased complexity and number of suppliers on any given project, has made it even more important to address the issue of temporary workers’ health and safety.

Why Should Organizations Care?

Research conducted by the American Staffing Association indicates that workplaces using temporary workers often pay less attention to safety and lack basic health and safety programs. These companies tend to focus mostly on the bottom line, rather than on the workers themselves. However, whether temporary or permanent, all workers have a right to a safe and healthy workplace (for more about employee rights, see How to Refuse Unsafe Work).

Hiring temporary workers can be highly beneficial to organizations. Organizations can enjoy cost effectiveness, impart new skills to existing staff, and have greater flexibility. But those advantages also come with responsibilities: employers have a duty of care to all their employees, meaning that they should take all the steps that are reasonably practicable to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of all their workers, regardless of whether they were retained through a placement agency or personnel firm.

Demonstrating concern for the health, safety, and well-being of temporary workers helps the organization build trust and reinforce its commitment to these types of workers, and can also help to boost productivity. And it's not only prudent; it is an employer’s moral and ethical duty to their workers to reduce or prevent the physical or psychological injuries they might suffer.

How Can You Protect Temporary Workers?

Organizations using the services of temporary workers should provide them with the same level of health and safety protection that they provide for their permanent full-time employees. OSHA recommends the following:

  • Regular communication between placement agencies and the host organizations to ensure that temporary workers are adequately protected.
  • Assessment of the job site by the placement agency before assigning workers

Additionally, host organizations should consider:

  • Developing and implementing a safety policy specifically targeted at outsourced labor
  • Adopting and promoting a more holistic safety culture that extends to temporary workers
  • Putting the right systems and software in place to increase visibility, collaboration, and accountability, which can help host organizations to gain control of their supplier network, thereby reducing risk across their supply chain (For more information on Supplier Management Software, check out: http://www.intelex.com/landing/supplier-management-software)

Protecting temporary workers, as well as addressing the issues associated with their health and safety, will not only ultimately reduce the host organization's risk of uncontrolled incidents and loss of public trust but will also have a positive impact on their profitability.