Blue Collar Temp Workers more Likely to be Injured

Thursday, December 26, 2013

Warning: the economic recovery from the Great Recession may be hazardous to your health and life, according to a new report from the non-profit group ProPublica. Employers’ replacing their own employees with low-paid temp workers is nothing new, but the report found that explosive growth in so-called “blue collar” temp work at factories, warehouses and construction sites has yielded not only lower wages but higher rates of injury and death among workers.


Traditionally focused on providing temporary office staffing, the temp industry has undergone a sea change during the last decade. Now employing a record 2.8 million workers, temp firms have accounted for almost one-fifth of total U.S. job growth since the recession officially ended, and the industry’s trade group, the American Staffing Association, says that temp work is growing 10 times faster than private-sector employment.


Growth in blue collar temping has been even more dramatic: last year, more than one in every 20 blue-collar workers was a temp, and according to a ProPublica analysis of occupational employment data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of temp workers doing blue collar work has grown dramatically, from 30% to 47% since 1993. In the rush to use these workers, according to the report, health and safety issues have taken a back seat.


The report is based on an analysis of more than 3.5 million workers’ compensation claims filed over five years in five states. Because the federal government does not keep injury statistics on temps, and state records are often incomplete, non-existent or legally confidential, investigators focused on five states with good injury records representing more than one in five Americans: California, Florida, Massachusetts, Minnesota and Oregon. ProPublica also interviewed more than 100 temps and reviewed more than 50 U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigations of temp worker accidents.


A key finding across all five states is that temps have a much greater risk of being injured on the job than non-temps. A blue collar temp’s risk of on the job injury is about 72% higher in Minnesota, 66% higher in Oregon, 50% higher in California and Florida, and 36% higher in Massachusetts. Perhaps even more ominous is the fact that the problem is getting worse, as the claims rate of temp workers increased in Florida, California, Oregon and Massachusetts, while that of regular workers has been stable or dropped. And when blue collar temps are injured, it is likely a serious matter. In Florida, temps had twice the rate of lacerations, fractures, punctures, dislocations, and crushing injuries; they were three times as likely to suffer an amputation in the four states where such records are available.


The statistics almost certainly understate the dangers faced by blue-collar temps, all of which are rooted in or exacerbated by their class position. Nationwide, blue collar temps are more likely to be poor, undocumented, uneducated, non-English speaking and unrepresented by a labor union, all of which undermines their ability to avoid workplace hazards. A blue collar temp who either refuses a dangerous task or reports an injury is likely to be barred from returning to the job site and even blacklisted by the temp agency.


“The temp agency is in this position of rehiring them over and over again or not hiring them,” explains Linda Forst, a professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago, “so that’s a huge disincentive to report” job-site injuries. “I think the number of temp workers who report is really low. I think it’s the tip of the iceberg.”


The entire temp worker model—based on separating the legal employer-employee relationship from the workplace owner-worker relationship—basically subverts the economics of the workers’ comp system, according to ProPublica. That system is designed to encourage safety by charging higher workers’ comp insurance premiums for companies with higher injury rates. By hiring temp workers, companies shield themselves from this economic pressure because the temp company is responsible for workers’ comp. As a result, the financial incentive to create safe working conditions—at least for temps—is removed, and temps get sent to do the most dangerous jobs, often with little or no safety training.


Michael Foley, an economist at the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, explains how that translates to the shop floor. “A lot of it is the scut work, the work nobody wants to do. The way they are being used is to protect the skilled tradesmen from the dirty cleanup jobs. They’re brought to the site, and they’re basically pointed in the way of the Dumpster. There’s no oversight, there’s no supervision and they face risks they’re not experienced to deal with.”

-Matt Bewig


To Learn More:

Temporary Work, Lasting Harm (by Michael Grabell, Olga Pierce and Jeff Larson, ProPublica)

Companies Increasingly Use Temporary Workers to Avoid Safety Regulations (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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