Occupational Health News Roundup

In case you missed it before the holidays, ProPublica’s excellent “Temporary Work, Lasting Harm” piece is well worth a read. (Univision also produced and aired a version of the story.) Michael Grabell, Olga Pierce, and Jeff Larson tell the story of 21-year-old Day Davis, a temporary worker killed on his first day working at a Bacardi bottling plant, and others who died while on temporary work assignments. A ProPublica analysis of workers’ compensation claims in five states found that temporary workers face a significantly greater risk of on-the-job injuries compared to permanent employees. The risk was 36% higher in Massachusetts, 50% higher in California and Florida, 66% higher in Oregon, and 72% higher in Minnesota. The added risk is even greater when considering only blue-collar jobs.

ProPublica’s investigation also included interviews with more than 100 temp workers and reviews of dozens of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigations involving harm to temporary workers. Grabell, Pierce, and Larson write:

The lightly regulated blue-collar temp world is one where workers are often sent to do dangerous jobs with little or no training. Where the company overseeing the work isn’t required to pay the medical bills if temps get hurt. And where, when temp workers do get injured on the job, the temp firm and the company fight with each other over who is responsible, sometimes even delaying emergency medical care while they sort it out.

The growing reliance on temps subverts one of the strongest incentives for companies to protect workers. The workers’ comp system was designed to encourage safety through economic pressure; companies with higher injury rates pay higher insurance premiums. Hiring temp workers shields companies from those costs. If a temp worker gets hurt, the temp agency pays the workers’ comp, even though it has little or no control over job sites.

OSHA director David Michaels said he has been alarmed by the number of temp workers being killed on their first day on the job. Earlier this year, he launched an initiative to raise awareness about the dangers temp workers face and employers’ responsibilities. But despite growing concern about temp workers’ safety, regulators and lawmakers have struggled to make major changes, in part because they lack basic data, such as whether temps get injured more than regular workers. Unlike the way it monitors every other industry, the federal government does not keep injury statistics on temp agency workers.

Read the article for more stories of temporary workers killed on the job, and the factors that can make temp jobs so dangerous. Also, see OSHA’s website to learn more about the agency’s initiative on temp worker safety.

In other news:

Star-Ledger (New Jersey) Column: The death of temporary worker Ronald Smith, who was crushed by equipment at an Amazon warehouse in New Jersey, is drawing much-needed attention to the hazards faced by workers employed by temp firms.

NPR’s All Things Considered: The rate of occupational deaths among oil and gas workers is rising, and is now nearly eight times higher than the rate of workers as a whole. Worker exhaustion is likely a factor, as workers typically log shifts of 12-14 hours.

Center for Public Integrity: Workers seeking compensation for occupational injuries and illnesses can face long waits for a limited number of Labor Department administrative law judges to handle their cases. As a result, some may delay needed medical treatment, or accept meager settlements out of desperation.

San Francisco Chronicle: Alameda County, CA joins San Francisco and Santa Monica in establishing a program under which nail salons can get certified and recognized for following worker-friendly practices like having adequate ventilation and avoiding products with certain hazardous ingredients.

Times Union (New York) Commentary: For most workers in New York state, the new year meant an increase in the state’s minimum wage to $8 an hour. Tipped workers, though, are still stuck at the state minimum of $5 an hour. Jack Temple comments, “While the restaurant and hotel industry may believe that it’s entitled to an exception, New York’s economy — and the thousands of low-paid tipped workers struggling to make ends meet across the state — cannot afford another year of this special treatment.”

New York Times: Bangladesh police charged the owners of the Tazareen Fashions factory, where a November 2012 fire killed 112 workers, with culpable homicide. It’s the first time factory owners from the country’s influential garment industry have faced prosecution for workers’ deaths. (No charges have yet been filed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory, which killed 1,100 workers last year, although police are holding 21 individuals.)