Focusing on Temp Workers’ Safety

With the U.S. staffing market set to grow to record sizes in the coming years, the industry is rolling out a major initiative aimed at boosting worker safety.

By Julie Cook Ramirez

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

The staffing industry has come a long way since William Russell Kelly coined the iconic term “Kelly Girl” to describe his legions of bright young women eager to take on short-term secretarial and clerical assignments in downtown Detroit beginning in 1946. These days, more than 3 million temporary and contract workers are employed by America’s staffing companies, working part-time and full-time in virtually all occupations in all sectors, including professional/managerial; clerical/administrative; engineering/information technology/scientific; health care; and industrial.

The U.S. staffing market was projected to grow 6 percent in both 2016 and 2017 to reach a record revenue of nearly $150 billion, according to an April 2016 update from Mountain View, Calif.-based Staffing Industry Analysts. Along with that growth have come concerns over temp worker safety, as the industry has evolved to encompass jobs in which injuries are more common.

“Safety hazards don’t care if you are full-time, part-time, or a temp,” says Howard Mavity, a partner in the Atlanta office of Fisher & Phillips and founder and co-chair of the firm’s workplace safety and catastrophe management practice group. “Often, temps present the biggest safety threat because they are very much eager beaver types who are pushing to do more. The supervisor may not realize these [individuals] don’t have the same safety background [as a traditional employee] and that’s how some of the more terrible death cases have occurred.”

The very nature of temp work is often problematic because host companies don’t realize safety training is necessary for this particular population, Mavity says. Or they have a hard time justifying the expenditure when the person in question may only be on the job for a short time.

“It does catch a lot of employers off guard and it’s pretty rough because if they’re going to bring someone on for just a few days, they may spend a disproportionate amount on training,” says Mavity.

In 2014, the Arlington, Va.-based American Staffing Association approached the Itasca, Ill.-based National Safety Council to help develop and administer a program focused on temporary worker safety. The partnership resulted in the Safety Standard of Excellence program, launched in October.

The program is designed to help reduce the rate and severity of temporary worker injuries, illnesses, and fatalities through the adoption of best practices and encouragement of continuous safety improvement. One key facet of the SSE is an increased focus on coordination and collaboration between staffing firms and host employers.

This begins with an upfront conversation about the staffing firm’s expectations with regard to safety, according to Amy Harper, NSC Journey to Safety Excellence and workplace strategy director. Typically, she says, the staffing firm is responsible for general safety training, such as hazard communication and blood-borne pathogens, while the host employer bears responsibility for site-specific and job-specific training. Such responsibilities must be clearly delineated in a written contract, according to Stephen Dwyer, general counsel for the American Staffing Association.

“The burden on the host employer is to ensure the temp is trained and works safely,” says Mavity. “If OSHA comes onsite and the temp hasn’t been adequately trained, they may cite the staffing provider, but they are principally going to go after the person directing the work.”

When it comes to inherently dangerous jobs, employers may want to reconsider relying on temps at all, says Dave DeSario, founding member of the Brooklyn-based Alliance for the American Temporary Workforce and executive producer of A Day’s Work, an award-winning documentary on temporary work. He cites figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, stating that temporary workers accounted for 782 workplace deaths (nearly 17 percent) in 2014, often because they are “sent to do the dirtiest and most dangerous jobs,” he says. (According to the BLS, 734 contract workers died as a result of work-related injuries in 2013, up from 715 in 2012 and 542 in 2011, when the agency first started tracking such figures.)


DeSario recently participated in a media briefing with the San Diego-based National Council for Occupational Safety and Health focused on the claim that temp workers are not only at a significantly greater risk of injury or death, but that the staffing industry is more focused on boosting its image than temp safety. He cites specific language in the SSE program guide related to the purpose of enhancing “the image of the industry with respect to job seekers, staffing clients, the government and media.”

“On the outside,” DeSario says, “this program appears to be for the purpose of protecting workers, but it’s all about enhancing the image of the industry. That’s really worrisome because more workers are going to be injured and killed because they falsely believed it was safer than it really was.”

Dwyer, however, bristles at DeSario’s accusations, countering that the SSE is merely the latest in a long line of initiatives aimed at ensuring safe working conditions for temporary employees. He points to numerous ASA-created books, newsletter and magazine articles, videos, and speaking engagements, all focused on educating staffing firms and host employers of their responsibilities to keep temp workers safe. ASA has also formed an employee safety committee comprised of safety experts from its member companies and established an employment law certification program through which member staffing firms demonstrate their mastery of employment and occupational safety concepts.

“These associations and their core employers take the issue of temp worker safety seriously,” says Mavity. “They not only comply with OSHA requirements, but propel other companies to do the same, so these initiatives are usually a force multiplier. You get good bang for your buck on them.”