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Literal holiday crush kills temporary worker at Amazon facility

The holidays are a busy time. There is finishing up year-end projects, getting finances in order, and if you’re lucky, buying (and wrapping) gifts for loved ones. But you are not the only one keeping up the frenetic pace.

Retail workers and employees in the warehouse industry are running on overdrive to ensure that you and your loved ones receive their gifts on time. Many of these workers are employed in short-term, or temporary, stints – employed just long enough to help businesses achieve their bottom line before they are again looking for future employment opportunities. But too often, these workers pay the ultimate price.

Temporary workers perform some of the most dangerous tasks in the most dangerous industries. Just this month, a temporary worker at an Avenell, N.J., facility that sorts packages for Amazon.com died after being crushed by equipment. Though the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) is still investigating the incident, it is likely that a lack of training and pace of working contributed to this fatal incident.

The worker, Ronald Smith -- a father of four and grandfather of seven -- was employed by Abacus, a temporary staffing agency that has an office onsite at the Avenell center, which is owned by Amazon. Throughout the country, Amazon hires thousands of temporary workers to process the extra packages that customers order around the holidays.

There are nearly 3 million temporary workers in the U.S. at any given time, OSHA has reported. The agency has launched a national initiative on temporary workers after data has shown that an alarming number of temporary workers are killed in the first few weeks on the job.

Many factors contribute to this: Employers are less likely to devote the resources to properly train a temporary worker than a permanent worker; temp workers are placed in industries that pressure workers to work at frenetic paces; and there is often confusion about whether the staffing agency or host employer is required to provide necessary training or safety equipment to the temp worker.

Both the staffing agency and host employer should have roles in ensuring the safety of workers – temporary or permanent. But temporary workers also must be made aware of their rights: They are not required to work in a situation where they feel unsafe, and should not have to pay the ultimate toll.

OSHA should be commended for calling attention to the urgent matter of temporary worker health and safety. For workers like the one who perished this month in Avenell, improving health and safety conditions for temporary workers cannot wait. Not even until after the holidays.

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