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Preventing Serious Injuries and Fatalities on Joint-Employer Jobsites

By Bennett Cuthbert
Published: November 15, 2021
Presented by Avetta
Key Takeaways

The presence of contingent workers on a jobsite often increases the risk of serious injury - but with good communication and a well-designed arrangement, it doesn't have to.

Caption: Construction workers Source: Alessandro Biascioli / iStock

This article is based on the Serious Injury/Fatality Prevention: Joint-Employer Settings webinar. Register now to learn more!

Joint-employer arrangements aren't new. They're decades old but became more common around the 1980s.

Since then, we've seen a troubling trend. While the rate of minor and moderate incidents have decreased, the number of serious injuries and fatalities (SIF) has been on the rise.

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These SIFs are not simply the result of one bad decision. They are the product of many factors, including organizational characteristics, technical issues, operational procedures, and features of the workplace culture.

(Learn more in Enhancing Safety Culture Through Mentorship Programs)

Given the complexity of these factors, reducing safety risks can be a daunting challenge for any workplace. A joint-employer arrangement only introduces more difficulties.

Contingent workers are useful and sometimes necessary, but there are three risk multipliers associated with having them on the worksite:

  • Risk perception: contingent workers often have a lower risk perception compared to employees who are more familiar with the work environment and may have site-specific training
  • Risk tolerance: contingent workers may be willing to go beyond their job tasks in order to make a good impression on their host employer, especially if they hope to be re-hired or be considered for a permanent position
  • Upward communication: contingent workers may feel uncomfortable about speaking up when they encounter risks or uncontrolled hazards on the jobsite

To ensure the safety of the contingent workers and everyone else on site, employers need to take steps to reduce these and other risk factors.

Before discussing ways to approach safety in these situations, however, we need to clarify exactly who is involved in a joint-employer arrangement.

The Three Parties in a Joint-Employer Arrangement

To create a safe work environment, serious threats to safety must be identified before anyone gets hurt. For this to happen, all parties involved must be on the same page.

In joint-employer environments, the major relevant parties are:

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  • The primary employer (contingent labor provider)
  • The host employer (client, creating/controlling employer)
  • The contingent worker

Let's take a look at each of them and their responsibilities.

The Primary Employer

The primary employer is commonly responsible for hiring, workers' comp expenses, and state and federal unemployment taxes, among other things.

When they're involved in a joint-employer situation, it is their employees who do the work, but that work is not carried out on their jobsites. As a result, they often approach safety from the standpoint of managing claims after an event occurs.

The Host Employer

The host employer is the one who requires the assistance of workers outside their organization. The work is carried out on their jobsites, which makes them responsible for controlling the hazards faced by those workers.

(Learn about The Hierarchy of Hazard Controls)

Since the host employer was not involved in hiring the contingent workers who come to their jobsites, it might be thought that they should bear less responsibility for incidents involving them on their sites. After all, they weren't given the option of hiring better people. Recent research and data, however, have demonstrated that safety is far more dependent on an organization's systems and processes than the individual workers.

The Contingent Worker

Employees working under a joint-employer system inherit the arrangement that the primary and host employers agree to.

While it is in the employers' interest to ensure the safety of the employee, this isn't always an easy thing to accomplish in practice. The employers may not be aware of everything that workers face on the front line. As a result, they might create an agreement that leaves the worker underprotected.

Both the primary and host employers, then, must take steps to become better acquainted with the conditions their employees will face, the nature of the work they'll undertake, and how they can solve problems when a situation goes from normal to abnormal.

Prevention Through Design

A key method for preventing serious injuries and fatalities is to adopt the Prevention Through Design (PTD) model of accident prevention.

Often, the two corporate entities will agree to the conditions that the operational teams inherit. However, this leads to some role ambiguity that, in turn, results in employees having to get creative about how to carry out their work.

To prevent workers needing to "go rogue" in this way, employers must move prevention upstream. They need to consider how they are setting up their operations teams, since they are the ones closer to the on-the-ground realities of the work and its associated risks.

The following table identifies specific elements of a safety management system that joint employers can implement at each stage in order to manage risk on an ongoing basis.

Stages

SMS Elements

Procurement & Vendor Selection

Leader/worker participation (both employers)

Start-Up Orientation Onboarding

PDCA define cadence, goals, and risk review

Operations Management

Non-standard work

Joint-employers integrated within change management comms

Front Line: Supervision

Risk identification abatement/problem-solving

Escalate; improvement processes & SIF risk

Front Line: Workforce

Identify/report deviation from safe practice

Participation for improvements to work


When designing their safety management systems employers should pay attention to which SIF categories have a higher frequency of occurrence. This will allow them to better target their prevention efforts.

General SIF categories:

  • Unusual/non-routine work
  • Non-production activities
  • In-plant modifications
  • Shutdowns (maintenance/repair)
  • High energy (hydraulic, pneumatic, steam, electrical, chemical)
  • Change: normal to abnormal

Reducing Risks Through Communication

While ensuring that the working conditions, the safety management system, and the joint employment agreement are well designed will help prevent serious incidents, it is not enough. A proper SIF prevention strategy will be actively assessed and calibrated throughout the entire duration of the working relationship.

To make this happen, company leadership should verify that the work continues to be carried out the way it should be. This can partly be accomplished by maintaining strong and reliable communication with the workforce. It is also important to empower them to participate in conversations about their work and safety, consult them about safe work processes, and respond to their concerns.

(Learn more in Face-to-Face Safety: The Right Way to Build a Safety Culture)

The beauty of this approach is that it leverages Prevention Through Design into the early stages of the relationship between employers and workers, thus creating trust and strengthening upward communication. This results in a better team, which in turn will help prevent incidents.

Better Communication, Better Design, Better Safety

Ultimately, preventing SIFs in joint-employer situations comes down to two things: designing smart agreements and safety systems while also ensuring continuous communication.

The working arrangement and safety systems should be designed to comprehensively and properly address safety issues. All parties must then communicate effectively for the entire duration of the relationship to help them anticipate and deal with risks as they arise or are identified.

Minor incidents in worksites with contingent workers have been decreasing. With a smarter approach, we can see a reduction in serious injuries and fatalities as well.

To watch this video, head over to the Serious Injury/Fatality Prevention: Joint-Employer Settings webinar page and register now.

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