Prevention and return to work in temporary work agencies: Questions and answers about the study

Did the research focus on the perspective of the workers who were interviewed?

The findings are based on information collected from the key players in the temporary work agency employment relationship. Interviews were conducted with temp agency workers (19 participants), temp agency managers and/or or owners (22 participants from 17 agencies), managers at client businesses (12 participants from 11 workplaces), and key informants, including regulators and policy-makers (11 participants). Study findings are based on information gathered from participants in all of these categories.

Don’t temp agencies ensure worker safety by providing workers with safety training and inspecting client worksites before placing workers?

Temp agencies did report inspecting worksites and providing safety training to workers. But the researchers found that this did not assure worker safety, for three reasons.

First, when workers are new to a worksite, they don’t know their way around and aren’t familiar with the local staff, equipment and work processes. This puts them at a higher risk for accidents. Although temp agency workers may receive generic health and safety training from their agency, they are still unaware of the site-specific hazards at client workplaces.

Second, the work conditions at the time of an agency's worksite inspection may be quite different from the actual day-to-day conditions confronted by temp agency workers upon their arrival. For instance, although machine safety guards may be present during an agency inspection, they might not, in fact, be used at the client employer site during the regular course of work or during busy periods. Also, tasks assigned to the temp agency worker by the client employer may fall outside of the contract with the agency and outside of the workers’ qualifications. (This may occur, for example, to avoid higher charge-out rates for more skilled work.)

Third, temp agency staff do not have the OHS appraisal skills of formally trained inspectors. They may be unable to recognize some important safety hazards.

Aren’t temp agency workers doubly protected—by both the temp agency and the client employer?

According to the findings, the dual employer arrangement created uncertainty among workers and client employers about who was responsible for what when it came to injury prevention and return to work. Although agencies appeared to have carefully written contracts detailing the allocation of responsibilities, these contracts may have been oriented to the agency’s legal needs rather than to guiding conduct among the different parties. In the study, some client employers hired temp agency workers to do the work they considered unpleasant or too dangerous for their regular employees. If accidents occurred, the workers' compensation claims record of the client employers would not be affected.

Why would temp agencies want to take on risky work?

The study did not show that agencies wanted their workers to get hurt. The study showed how agencies conducted pre-placement site inspections and provided generic health and safety training. However, the findings clearly indicated that part of an agency’s value to client employers is that the agency assumes responsibility for the workers if they get hurt. This strategy is cost-effective for agencies because they often have lighter obligations towards their employees than a regular employer would, because of the nature of their commitment to these employees. Agencies can also factor in the cost of compensation in their charges to the client company.

For example, employers are not obliged to re-employ workers following an injury if the workers have been employed by them for less than 12 months, and by the nature of their business, agencies will often not be obliged to re-employ injured workers. Although temp agencies do have to accommodate an injured worker with modified work until he or she is considered ready to return to “essential duties,” their obligation is muted. They are not obliged to return them to employment; they must only return the worker to the roster in a pattern similar to that of pre-injury employment. Also, the accident benefit costs for temp agency workers are based on relatively low income rates because, since these workers don't have regular work, they are more likely to be compensated for less than full-time work on a regular basis. Finally, research shows that agency workers earn less than other workers who do the same work. So another reason why agencies’ accident benefit costs are relatively low is due to the fact that they are based on these relatively low worker salary rates. 

Other types of workers are sent to work on the premises of another employer; e.g. equipment repair people, plumbers, etc. How are they different from temp agency workers?

The people on the premises to which these other types of workers are sent do not direct the work of these people. These workers have a direct employer off the premises who generally hires them for more than a brief period and, as a result, knows the employees, provides and organizes the work, and can anticipate hazards related to the kind of work.

Aren’t client employers legally responsible for the safety of temp agency workers under Ontario's Occupational Health and Safety Act?

Yes, Ontario's health and safety legislation places obligations on both temp agencies and client employers to protect the health and safety of temp agency workers. But the Occupational Health and Safety Act is one of two acts that govern injury and illness prevention in Ontario workplaces, and is only enforced if a problem comes to the attention of a Ministry of Labour inspector. The Workplace Safety and Insurance Act plays a stronger role in day-to-day workplace health and safety practices, but the incentives in that legislation apply only to the temp agency, not the client employer. This act creates financial incentives for workplace safety via experience-rated workers' compensation premiums. Employers can incur an expensive surcharge if they have more accidents than expected for their sector; likewise, they can receive a rebate for a relatively low accident record.

Aren’t client employers held responsible because temp agencies can transfer the workers’ compensation costs to them?

In Ontario, when temporary work agencies can prove that work accidents are related to the negligence of client employers, yes, they can apply to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to transfer the cost of the workers’ compensation premium-related charges. However, the practice is rare for a couple of reasons. First, the negligence may be difficult to prove. Second, it may not be in the best business interests of agencies to apply for cost transfers. Potential client employers may not seek to do business with agencies that gain a reputation for transferring costs to client employers, no matter how legitimate those transfers may be.

Isn’t the study biased because ACSESS, an association representing temp agencies, was not included on the study's advisory committee?

The study was, indeed, guided by a multi-stakeholder advisory committee that did not include a representative of the Association of Canadian Search, Employment and Staffing Services (ACSESS). In academic studies, advisory committees are not required. However, the researchers involved in this study decided to include an advisory committee so they could get advice about the set-up of the study and get feedback on the findings.

The committee included representatives from a broad range of stakeholder organizations, including one that provides advice to employers. However, the researchers excluded from the committee any organization with a financial interest in the study’s outcome. As a result of this criterion, ACSESS was excluded because it is an active lobby voice for a for-profit industry. This is explained on the ACSESS website: “A primary objective of ACSESS is to actively represent the industry and our membership before governments by providing input on employment legislation and regulations at the national and provincial levels.”

Isn’t the study biased because it is based on a small and selective sampling of people? It seems to overlook the many people who have safe, beneficial experiences.

Qualitative studies such as this one are based on small samples. That is the nature of these types of studies. But the samples are carefully chosen.

In this study, the people interviewed were carefully selected for their direct and authentic experience of temporary agency work. Indeed, much of the information collected in the study came from temp agencies themselves. Researchers conducted interviews with 22 agency owners and managers from 17 different agencies, which were selected to represent the full range of agency sizes (from small, local agencies to multinationals) and locations (from agencies in mid-sized cities to large urban areas).

Researchers also conducted interviews with 12 client employers from 11 workplaces, which represented different industry sectors and locations, as well as with 19 temp agency workers, who came from different locations and temp agencies, who worked in different types of jobs, and who may or may not have had a work injury. Finally, researchers also interviewed 11 key informants (e.g. policy-makers, regulators) who had expert knowledge about the temp work industry.

The study focused on low-wage temp agency work, such as general labour, warehouse and service work. Some aspects of the findings would likely have been different if the study had focused on higher-wage and skilled temp agency work, such as the type of work done by Canadian university graduates. While the researchers recognized that low-wage workers can have beneficial and safe experiences working for temp agencies, their aim was not to count how many workers had good and bad experiences. Rather, their aim was to explore how health-and-safety-related practices were carried out in the context of temp agency work. The researchers found that existing loopholes in policy structures allow for decreased worker protection for temp agency workers compared to regularly employed workers.

Isn’t this study based on anecdotal evidence? It seems to be a theory and not anything that has been empirically demonstrated.

The statistical evidence across international jurisdictions clearly shows that temp agency workers have more workplace accidents than regular workers, and some studies also point to agency workers having more serious injuries than regular workers. This study explains the mechanisms for why this might be so. The conclusions presented in this study are based on a carefully selected range of first-hand experiences of people well-positioned in the temp agency sector. Indeed, a large portion of the study participants were temp agency owners and executives, including OHS risk management directors of multinational temp agencies whose own responsibilities spanned multi-province jurisdictions. As well, client employers who regularly hire staff from temp agencies were also included. These parties have no vested interest in providing an unflattering depiction of their sector and business practices.