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Groups launch effort to improve health and safety for temporary workers

The use of temporary labor has skyrocketed in recent years, with temporary help accounting for 15 percent of all job growth nationally the past four years. That number is likely to be even larger, as companies are responsible for reporting whether they utilize temporary labor.

Unfortunately, temporary workers face a tough employment predicament: Many receive insufficient training or are inexperienced with how to protect themselves on the jobsite, but are reluctant to mention that to employers so that they aren’t replaced. Think about it – employers know that these workers are not sticking around permanently, so are unlikely to devote the same resources into training these workers as they would permanent employees.

However, temporary workers are employed in some of the country’s most hazardous jobs, including waste recycling, fish processing and construction.

Insufficient training, dangerous jobs, hesitancy to report safety hazards… When you do the math, it doesn’t look pretty for temporary workers.

Such was the case for Michael White, a 31-year-old temporary worker in Houston, Texas. On June 5, his third day on the job at Republic Services Inc., a big waste management company in Houston, the math didn’t pan out for him.

He had been assigned to work "the beast" - the hardest and heaviest of the Republic routes, requiring him to load 16 tons of garbage over a sweltering hot 10-hour day. He was not acclimated to working in the heat and never received training from his temp agency or from Republic about the dangers of heat illness, wrote OSHA chief Dr. David Michaels in an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle

When his body went into heat stroke, White's driver did not recognize the signs and did not know to move him into the shade. When the ambulance arrived, his heartbeats were irregular and his oral temperature had reached 107.8 degrees.

He was taken to the hospital, but his employers never contacted the doctors to give them his information or his next-of-kin emergency contacts, and he died alone in a hospital bed four days later.

“Over the last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration has received far too many reports of workers killed in their first few days at work. Most of these have been temporary workers,” Michaels wrote. “We have known for a century that new workers are at increased risk for occupational injury and fatality, and that higher risk is due to a lack of safety training and experience at that work site.”

“As our economy picks up steam, these numbers are rising again, and more employers are filling jobs with temporary workers. As their numbers grow, I fear that too many more will be injured or killed,” Michaels continued. “Many employers decide to forego important safety training for their temporary employees that would normally be given to permanent employees. They bring in ‘temps’ for a few days, weeks or even months, and the employer's commitment to these workers' safety mirrors that ‘temp’ status.”

OSHA fined Republic Services, as well as the temporary labor provider, Recana Solutions, in the wake of White’s death. The agency has begun a national initiative to protect temporary workers in order to halt this rising toll of fatal injuries – an initiative National COSH heartily applauds.

The health and safety of temporary workers are of grave concern to us here at National COSH. We are working to highlight the hazards that temporary workers are likely to face on the job, and are training organizations that work with temporary employees to know their rights on the job

In fact, National COSH, along with MassCOSH, the American Public Health Association’s Occupational Health and Safety Section, and the National Staffing Workers Alliance, is hosting a Temporary Worker Health and Safety Forum in Boston this coming weekend. Attendees will work together in making plans for future research, state policy reforms, regulatory policy reforms, and organizing efforts to improve the health and safety for temporary workers. There is still time to register for the forum. Learn more here! Can't make it to Boston? Don't worry. We'll try to share information from the forum after the event.

Then, next Monday, November 4, the groups will hold a telephone press conference to release recommendations drafted to improve temporary workers’ health and safety, which they will have presented to Dr. Michaels at the forum over the weekend.

Do you have stories about temporary workers facing hazards on the job, suffering from retaliation, or being unsure of their rights at work? Let us know. National COSH is looking to collect stories from temporary workers for a new campaign on protecting workers. Contact Dorry (dorry.samuels@gmail.com) or Jessica (jem.coshnet@gmail.com) to share your story.

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