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Deaths of temporary workers prompt OSHA to ramp up safety procedure campaign

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Deaths of temporary workers prompt OSHA to ramp up safety procedure campaign

With employers hiring more temporary workers, safety needs to be improved to prevent injuries and deaths among contract employees, experts say.

Numerous factors play into temporary worker hazards, the largest of which includes a divide between staffing companies and employers about which side should provide safety training, said Fred Pachón, president of Ventura, Calif.-based consultancy Risk-Guards.

The number of serious injuries and fatalities is “pretty high in the staffing industry because there's a huge disconnect,” said Mr. Pachón, who previously was vice president of risk management and insurance for a California staffing firm.

The Occupational Health and Safety Administration has ramped up its efforts to promote temporary worker safety in the aftermath of recent worker fatalities. David Michaels, OSHA's assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, said in a June presentation that at least 14 temporary blue-collar workers at various companies died during their first day at a new worksite in the previous 12 months.

“People get to work, and their first day on the job is their last day on earth,” said Mr. Michaels, who addressed safety professionals during the American Society of Safety Engineers' Safety 2013 conference in Las Vegas.

OSHA's focus on safety for temporary workers comes after employment growth in that sector. Temporary help services added 10,000 jobs in June and have seen hiring gains this year, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Though employers are required to train all workers in safety procedures, Mr. Michaels said companies aren't investing in safety training for temporary workers because of uncertainty about how long such workers will stay on the job.

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In addition to the transitional nature of temporary work, Mr. Pachón said workers often fall through the cracks when training is needed. While staffing companies are required to provide general safety training to temporary workers, the employers who hire them are responsible for providing training that is tailored to the temp worker's specific responsibilities at the job site.

Many times, such safety failures are a matter of oversight, Mr. Pachón said. However, he said some injuries occur because of employer negligence.

For instance, employers sometimes hire and train temporary workers to do one job, then later assign them to perform different tasks they were not trained to perform, Mr. Pachón said.

The worst offenders, he said, hire temporary employees to perform dangerous work because their injuries will increase the staffing company's experience modification factor without affecting the employer's workers compensation costs. This factor is a component of the formula used to adjust a workers comp premium for the difference between a particular company's inherent risk and the average risk for all companies within the same line of work.

“A lot of them wash their hands of it,” Mr. Pachón said of employers with unsafe practices. “They don't take ownership.”

Duane R. Grange, Springfield, Ore.-based safety and human resources director for Selectemp Employment Services., said the company provides general safety training and works to carefully screen clients to keep workers safe.

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That screening process includes a walk-through of the client's facilities and a review of the company's safety procedures. Selectemp also has written safety protocols clients can use to train Selectemp staffers before bringing them onto a job site.

Though the process typically weeds out unsafe employers, Mr. Grange said Selectemp has taken its temporary workers off of a job site when its employees were found to be doing work for which they weren't trained. That included one site where an employee was hurt while performing unapproved work.

“Three days later, we had another employee in another area that wasn't authorized, so we pulled 35 people off the job,” said Mr. Grange, whose firm processed 4,000 hiring placements last year. “And that's expensive, but we got our point across.”

Huntington Ingalls Industries Inc., a Newport News, Va.-based shipbuilding contractor, has tried to keep its temporary employees safe by requiring comprehensive safety training for anyone who enters the company's premises, said James R. Thornton, director of environmental health and safety. The company's sites include about 39,000 employees in Virginia, Mississippi, Louisiana and California. Less than 5% of these workers are temporary staffers.

“One of the things we can't afford is to bring in temporary workers who are not familiar with our processes, haven't been trained and put themselves and our workers at risk,” Mr. Thornton said.

Huntington Ingalls has participated in OSHA's Voluntary Protection Program since 1995, and its injury rates have fallen 300% since then, Mr. Thornton said. Much of that is because, under the program, the company has developed safety training and protocols that it follows strictly for all workers and visitors who come to a Huntington Ingalls site.

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“You have a duty, a responsibility to make sure that they're afforded a safe and healthful visit or work tenure,” Mr. Thornton said.

OSHA inspectors have begun asking temporary workers whether they have been properly informed about safety protocols, such as lockout-tagout procedures that shut down machines and prevent them from accidentally turning on during maintenance, Mr. Michaels said in June. The agency also is working with the American Staffing Association and employers that use temporary staffing agencies on an initiative to protect contract workers.

While experts on both sides of the temporary staffing industry agree with OSHA's efforts, they say employers can best keep workers safe by following the “golden rule” with temporary hires.

“Treat them as you would your own employees,” Selectemp's Mr. Grange said.