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Seasonal workers in high-injury warehousing pose safety concerns


As retailers begin hiring seasonal workers to meet the demands of the upcoming holiday season, experts are stressing the importance of safety training for temporary employees who may be new to fast-paced industries such as warehousing and delivery.

Over the years retail work has shifted more toward mail-order and has become a focus for safety regulators as the demanding labor has led to more strains and other injuries.

Seasonal workers pose a dilemma, experts say.

Such temporary workers “might be willing to compromise safety or to take additional tasks and additional risks associated with those tasks to impress their potential employer,” said Vernon Iturralde, a Houston-based assistant vice president of risk control with Gallagher Bassett Services Inc. “And if they’re not trained or expected to do that, then they could really put themselves at a disadvantage from a risk perspective.” Inc. announced Sept. 19 that it will be hiring 250,000 people, some of them for seasonal roles. United Parcel Service Inc. said it’s planning to bring on an additional 100,000 temporary workers to meet holiday demand.

On Sept. 27, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Inspector General issued a report critical of workplace safety inspections in warehousing. It said the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration has not effectively addressed high injury and illness rates occurring in warehouses.

This time of year, retail distribution centers are “on steroids,” as companies attempt to meet increased demand with additional workers, said Don Enke, vice president of risk services for St. Louis-based Safety National Casualty Corp.

Some companies are onboarding temporary workers at “warp speed,” which is a concern as temporary workers tend to get hurt more frequently than full-time employees, Mr. Enke said.

New employees tend to get hurt within the first six months on the job, he said, meaning the addition of part-time, seasonal workers who may have never done the job before could translate into increased work injury rates, which could be a concern for workers compensation insurers.

Companies can avoid workplace injuries — and corresponding comp claims — by taking steps to ensure temporary workers receive proper guidance on workplace safety, Mr. Enke said.

“The better employers are going to put them through the same program and process as they would if they were hiring full-time employees,” Mr. Enke said.    

An Amazon spokeswoman said the company is doing just that: offering seasonal workers improved safety training after developing a new curriculum designed to improve workplace safety practices.

Experience is also a concern, as many seasonal workers fall between the ages of 18 and 24 and thus it could be the first time they’ve been exposed to forklifts and other dangerous machinery, said Jon Wilson, Lombard, Illinois-based senior loss control consultant with Gallagher Bassett.

“You can’t treat them the same way that you’re going to treat somebody who has spent 10 years in a warehouse,” Mr. Wilson said.

Increased work injuries, however, are not just traced to novice employees, he said, but also to increased volume or demand of work regardless of who is performing it.

“When we have that increase in production or those increases in work hours, it’s more likely that we’re going to see a lot more injuries,” Mr. Wilson said.