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Report suggests OSHA safeguard contingent workers

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Farmworkers pick tomatoes in Immokalee, Fla. during the 2006 spring season.

 

Luis M. Alvarez/AP

Workplace safety and health regulators should conduct an enforcement blitz and amend policies to give greater protection to the growing number of vulnerable temporary, or “contingent,” workers, a new report recommends.

The report from the Center for Progressive Reform, a nonprofit research and advocacy group, echoes many of the findings of a December Center for Public Integrity story detailing the increasing use of contingent workers to perform some of the most hazardous, undesirable jobs.

The number of contingent workers has more than doubled during the past two decades, with the current total estimated at more than 2.5 million, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Recent studies have indicated that contingent workers suffer injuries at higher rates than other employees.

Use of such workers is particularly popular in industries such as farming, construction, warehousing and hotel services, the group’s report says. Unable to outsource these jobs, companies have turned to contingent workers to reduce labor costs, the report says. By using contingent workers, the employer can avoid paying for workers’ health insurance and workers’ compensation costs, eliminating incentives to provide safe workplaces, the CPR researchers say.

Steven Berchem, the chief operating officer of the American Staffing Association, said in a statement, "We have not had an opportunity to review the report, but worker safety is paramount to our members and the American Staffing Association is actively engaged in continual efforts to ensure safe working conditions for temporary and contract employees."

Yet these workers are often assigned to dangerous work and not given the proper training or safety equipment, the new report says.

The Center’s recent story highlighted the case of Carlos Centeno, who worked for a temporary staffing agency and was assigned to the Raani Corp. plant near Chicago. The chemical tank he was cleaning doused him with a 185-degree mixture of water and citric acid, inflicting burns over 80 percent of his body. The company failed to call 911, according to a federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration report obtained by the Center, and more than 98 minutes passed between the time of the accident and Centeno’s arrival at a hospital. He died three weeks later.

Friday’s report urges reforms. OSHA should target companies likely to use contingent workers and conduct “enforcement ‘sweeps,’ ” it said, and the agency should issue rules to ensure temporary laborers receive the proper training and protective equipment.

The report also recommends OSHA revise the criteria for inclusion in its Voluntary Protection Programs, an initiative designed to recognize “model workplaces” and exempt them from regular inspections. Yet a Center series revealed that preventable deaths continue at the so-called VPP sites, with few consequences for employers. Friday’s report suggests OSHA ensure participants don’t use large numbers of contingent workers to perform the most dangerous work.

OSHA did not respond to requests for comment on the recommendations.