Prevention and return to work in temporary work agencies: Summary of study findings and policy implications

Plain-language booklet: Understanding the management of injury prevention and return to work in temporary work agencies: Summary of study findings and policy implications  (1.1 MB)

Why was this study done?

Employment through temporary work agencies (also known as temp agencies) is a form of work that is increasingly common in our changing economy, which is demanding a more flexible workforce.  Previous research across jurisdictions indicates that temp agency workers are at greater risk of work injury than permanent workers.

This study was done to investigate how occupational health and safety (OHS) and return to work (RTW) are managed in temp agency work, which involves a three-way relationship among the worker, temporary work agency and client employer. The study focused on lower-skilled job placements in temporary agencies of all sizes.

How was the study done?

The study used qualitative methods. Researchers gathered information from interviews and focus groups with low-wage temp workers (19 participants in placements such as general labour and warehouse work), temp agency owners and/or managers who engage in low-wage placements (22 participants from 17 agencies), managers at client employer businesses (12 participants from 11 workplaces), and key informants, including legal, sector and regulatory experts (11 participants). The research team also reviewed key documents about the industry and analyzed the status of the law in Ontario regarding temp workers in relation to OHS and workers’ compensation.

What did the researchers find?

The research team made these key findings:

  • The temp agency industry is both very competitive and difficult to regulate. These characteristics make it difficult to protect temp workers' health and safety and can lead to their increased exposure to hazards. This environment also discourages low-wage temp agency workers from complaining about poor job conditions. These workers often know they are easily replaceable and that their complaints may not be heard.
  • Experience rating premium structures provide incentives to both temp agencies and client employers to disproportionately expose low wage temp agency workers to OHS risks.
  • The health and safety risk to temp agency workers in general is exacerbated by the inability of temp agencies to prevent work injuries, for a number of reasons:
    • Temp agencies do not supervise their own workers or see the day-to-day work conditions of their client employers.
    • Although temp agencies require workers to pass generic safety tests (and their clients are responsible for providing specific instructions about the jobs into which temp agency workers are placed), newness on the job still leaves temp agency workers unfamiliar with equipment, processes, staff and specific conditions of the workplace.
    • While most temp agencies interviewed described conducting pre-placement worksite inspections, temp agency staff have limited hazard assessment skills and see client sites only briefly.
    • Temp agencies and workers described agency staff asking workers to inform them of worksite hazards, but the temp agency workers in the study spoke of hiding injuries and not reporting problems because of their economic insecurity; i.e. they needed the work and did not want to jeopardize their placements. 
    • Temp agencies regularly face pressure to fill jobs very quickly, which is not conducive to ensuring a good fit between workers and the jobs into which they are being placed.
  • The current legal framework in Ontario ineffectively targets prevention of injury to temp agency workers and weakens employer accountability.
    • The Occupational Health and Safety Act allows for both clients and temp agencies to be held accountable for violations of the Act. However, in practice, this legislation is only enforced if a problem comes to the attention of a Ministry of Labour inspector. Even if a fine is applied, some small agencies are run with little infrastructure and can avoid fines by closing down, declaring no assets and reopening under another name.
    • The Workplace Safety and Insurance Act recognizes temp agencies as the sole employer, and so the ‘prevention incentive’ in experience-rated Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) premiums is applied only to temp agencies. This means client employers who hire temp agency staff can maintain a clean WSIB accident record, even when accidents happen regularly to temp agency workers on their premises. The cost and risk of work accidents are effectively outsourced to temp agencies.
    • Temp agencies can apply to the WSIB to transfer the cost of the workers’ compensation premium-related charges to their clients in situations when work accidents are due to the negligence of the client. However, this practice is rare because the negligence may be difficult to prove. Also, it may not be in the best business interests of agencies to apply for cost transfers, as new or existing clients may prefer not to do business with an agency that has transferred costs to a client, regardless of the legitimacy of the transfer. 
  • Following work injuries, modified work proceeds awkwardly for temp agency workers because, under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, client employers have no return-to-work responsibility. However, temp agencies are never the actual worksite of their workers, and they have limited options for providing modified work on their premises.

What are the policy implications of the findings?

This study identified several regulatory issues that do not provide adequate incentives to prevent injury to temp agency workers, promote return to work and ensure employer accountability. This led the researchers to recommend the following:

  • Apply stronger OHS incentives and responsibility to client employers, who have the strongest control over the work conditions of temp agency workers. Client employers supervise temp agency workers, and they know and manage the day-to-day operations of their worksites. They are, therefore, in the best position to prevent and manage risk for all workers under their supervision.
  • Apply existing joint health and safety committee (JHSC) requirements to temp agencies. Currently, temp agencies are the only sector for which the Occupational Health and Safety Act is not being enforced with respect to the obligation for firms with 20 or more employees to have systematic joint labour-management collaboration on identifying and overcoming OHS risk. This is despite the documented higher risk of work injury among temp agency workers. JHSCs would provide temp workers and managers with a forum for discussing this elevated risk and ways to manage it, as well as for focusing on hazards intrinsic to the status of temp agency workers.
  • Conduct proactive investigations of workplaces that regularly use large numbers of temp agency workers. Temp agency workers do not have secure employment. Low-skilled workers face particular employment insecurity and are particularly unwilling to "speak up" about poor work conditions. Proactive inspections would better protect these vulnerable workers.

What are the strengths and limitations of this study?

A key strength of this study was its identification of broad system-level issues relevant to the OHS governance of all temporary workers and agencies, not just so-called "bad apple” agencies.

This research focused on low-wage temp agency work, such as general labour, warehouse and service work. Some aspects of the findings would likely be different if the study focused on higher wage and skilled work, such as that done by Canadian university graduates.