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Guideline would put safety onus on host employers and staffing agencies

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WASHINGTON — Host employers and staffing agencies would share responsibility for ensuring the safety and health of temporary workers under a new federal guideline.

The National Advisory Committee on Occupational Safety and Health on Wednesday approved submitting the Temporary Workers Injury and Illness Prevention Program Guideline to the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration. The plan would establish best practices to protect temporary workers.

In 2014, the U.S. had about 3.2 million temporary and contract employees — 37% in the industrial sector and 28% in clerical and administrative offices, according to the American Staffing Association.

A subcommittee of the advisory group debated how to ensure that both host employers and staffing agencies understand their responsibilities to safeguard workers, but acknowledged that would pose certain challenges for staffing agencies.

For example, host employers may resist allowing staffing firm officials to come on-site, Stephen Dwyer, general counsel for the American Staffing Association in Washington, said Tuesday during the two-day meeting in Washington.

“It can't be a strict liability,” he said. “A staffing firm can't absolutely ensure all exposures to hazards have been addressed.”

Other members said such challenges should not absolve staffing agencies of their responsibility to protect worker safety.

“If (staffing agencies are) sending their folks into an environment where they need (personal protective equipment), then part of their responsibility is to make sure that that happens,” and they share that responsibility with host employers, said Margaret Seminario, director of safety and health at the AFL-CIO in Washington.

OSHA has taken the position that staffing firms must take reasonable steps to ensure the health and safety of these workers, Mr. Dwyer said.

David Michaels, the agency's assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, cited a case in which a Houston-area firm hired for roof work ignored an employee request for fall protection. An employee did fall and suffer severe burns. The host employer purchased fall protection equipment after the incident and ahead of reporting it to OSHA, but the staffing agency eventually told the truth about the timing, he said. Both employers were cited and fined, with the staffing agency penalized under a 1926 standard requirement to inspect the workplace, Mr. Michaels said.

The work group adopted language encouraging staffing agencies to seek the contractual right to visit worksites to ensure temporary workers' safety and be prepared to pull people from unsafe worksites.

The guideline was approved despite tense moments triggered by the late offering of amendments. The committee ultimately approved revising the names of the scoring categories included in the self-assessment survey section, which is intended to help both employers assess the general quality and effectiveness of their shared safety and health efforts, from poor, good and best to beginning, developing and mature.

“This is a credible approach and it does give companies something to reach for,” said Rick Ingram, health and safety adviser at BP P.LC. in Goliad, Texas. “I think it's a positive change.”