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Plight of temporary workers highlighted in ‘Hard Labor’ series

Jim Morris with the Center for Public Integrity and Chip Mitchell with Chicago’s WBEZ released a great piece today highlighting the plight of temporary workers as part of their ongoing “Hard Labor” series.

Today’s story covered the death of 50-year-old Carlos Centeno, who died three weeks after burning 80 percent of his body when he was showered with a solution of scalding water and citric acid while on a temporary job assignment at an Illinois manufacturing plant. Centeno was wearing a T-shirt and latex gloves- and no personal protective equipment, which was not unusual for that factory. The article went on to detail a litany of hazards that workers faced in the factory, including chemical exposures and serious burns.

“The 11-page OSHA memo, dated May 10, 2012, argues that safety breakdowns in the plant warrant criminal prosecution — a rarity in worker death cases,” the article said. “The story behind Centeno’s death underscores the burden faced by some of America’s 2.5 million temporary, or contingent, workers — a growing but mostly invisible group of laborers who often toil in the least desirable, most dangerous jobs. Such workers are hurt more frequently than permanent employees and their injuries often go unrecorded, new research shows.”

Raani Corp., which owned the factory where Centeno was burned, was fined $473,000 for 14 alleged violations, six of which are classified as willful. Prior to the incident, OSHA hadn’tinspected the plant in 18 years, the article said.

But Raani Corp. is far from the only corporation that puts temporary workers’ safety on the line.

“Although there are no differences in the [OSHA] regulations between standard employment workers and temporary agency employed workers, those in temporary employment situations are for the most part a vulnerable population with few employment protections,” the article cited.

And while the Bureau of Labor Statistics suggests that temporary workers’ injuries are on the decline, the reporters correctly point out that injuries among temp workers are often underreported for fear of being replaced in the workplace.

MassCOSH worked with Massachusetts legislators this year to pass a law that protects temporary workers from a host of egregious practices, from wage theft to inadequate training. Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick signed the Temporary Worker’s Right to Know Act into law in August. Starting Jan. 13, 2013, temp agencies will be required to give each worker a written job order, providing information that every worker has a right to expect before going to a job. It also provides tools for the Department of Labor Standards to bring temp agencies into the light to ensure transparency and accountability.

“This law will bring essential sunlight to the shadows where these abuses have taken place, and help ensure fairness for workers and employers who follow the state’s labor laws,” said Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of MassCOSH and coordinator of the REAL (Reform Employment Agency Law) Coalition, which advocated for the bill’s passage.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health commends the Center for Public Integrity and WBEZ for shining light on the life-and-death challenges facing workers every day on the job. We look forward to more articles in the series.