The safety of American workers falls under a growing threat, according to a new report. [pdf] American industry's increasing reliance on “contingent workers” to fill hazardous jobs poses an increasing threat to worker safety. A new report from the Center for Progressive Reform (CPR) demands several new government policies to secure worker safety.
Contingent workers could be day laborers on a construction site or hotel housekeepers on temporary contracts. These temporary workers magnify safety danger because they don’t always get the training they need. This may be, at least in part, because employers don’t have a permanent responsibility to those workers.
“Contingent workers are disproportionately racial minorities and often come from vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds," said report co-author Martha McCluskey, Professor at the University at Buffalo Law School and CPR Member Scholar.
"Increasingly, employers are treating them as expendable, accepting high injury rates because the company is largely insulated from the economic consequences. As a result, contingent workers suffer frequent injuries on the job.”
McCluskey thinks that federal worker safety policy should tackle the challenge of protecting this work force. Otherwise, contingent workers will be left to the mercy of employers who have little economic incentive to protect them.
Employers who hire workers on a contingent basis don’t directly pay for workers’ compensation and health insurance, said the report. So they’re likely to be protected from the insurance premium rate increases that typically follow frequent workers’ injuries. So, employers of contingent labor don’t have the same financial motivation to eliminate hazards for other workers.
Industries evade responsibility
The CPR report, "At the Company’s Mercy: Protecting Contingent Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions," looks at worker safety threats in four industries where contingent work is growing or already common. They specifically consider the following areas:
- farm work
- warehouse labor hired indirectly through staffing agencies, and
· hotel housekeepers working through temp firms.
In each of these fields, employment can depend upon short-term fluctuations in demand. Too often, workers in these fields see little job security, low wages, minimal opportunities for advancement, and, all too often, hazardous working conditions.
Those hazards lead to work-related injuries. When that happens, the temporary nature of the employment can have negative consequences for the injured worker and, consequently, for society. The injured worker may quickly be out of a job. Depending on the severity of the injury, his or her prospects of new employment might be slim. Employer-based health insurance is a rarity for contingent workers. That means that the costs of treating injuries are typically shifted to the worker or the public at large.
Recommended federal actions
The report recommends reforms that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) could make under current laws. It also considers some amendments to the occupational safety laws that would require congressional action. Some of the report’s recommendations include:
Empower workers to challenge employers in court. Congress should amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act to include a private right-of-action. That would allow any person to bring suit in federal court against someone who violates provisions of the OSHA statute or its regulations. Many other major health, safety, and environmental laws already provide for such “citizen suits.”
Improve education and training. Contingent workers are often thrust into new jobs for which they have little formal training. OSHA should establish rules to ensure that employers provide workers a minimum level of job training. This would include information about their assigned tasks, known hazards, protective equipment and practices and procedures for reporting hazards and injuries. In addition, OSHA should expand funding for community organizations to provide education and training programs that specifically target the needs of contingent workers.
Strengthen enforcement. OSHA should conduct “sweeps” of the industries where contingent workers are most prevalent. They also should issue penalties against employers that have large numbers of contingent workers and yet fail to make accommodations for those workers in the firms’ health and safety programs.
Issue ergonomics standards. OSHA should craft ergonomics standards for specific industries. They need to start doing this first with industries in which contingent workers suffer high rates of musculoskeletal injuries.
Expand research. OSHA should develop a clearinghouse for information about health hazards in industries where contingent workers are most used.
Enhance foreign-language capabilities. OSHA should continue its efforts to develop staff who are able to communicate effectively with workers who have limited English proficiency. The agency should also continue developing relationships with foreign consulates. They can help OSHA with education, training, and enforcement.
A chain is as strong as its weakest link, the adage advises. And so it is for the nation. American workers are all weakened when some workers are exploited. And, worker or not, all Americans are affected by the exploitation of contingent workers.
It’s far too easy for workers in certain industries where demand is seasonal or temporary to find that their employment is vulnerable. When workers lack a committed employer, the entire workforce suffers. The temporary workers are subject to injury, even death. And the permanent workforce, forced to rely on poorly trained temporary coworkers, is also put at risk.
This injustice radiates out from the workplace, affecting society as a whole. Medical care for injured workers, when evaded by the employer, becomes the burden of the nation. Emergency rooms bear the brunt of treatment. Society picks up the bill in increasing medical costs.
Treating people fairly is a cornerstone of a society that’s grounded in justice. The rule of law reigns in injustice when corporations or industries put workers and the nation at risk. By providing many practical recommendations to mitigate a growing danger to the U.S., this report enlightens and advises.
It’s up to Congress to act.