Temp agency workers falling through cracks in OHS system

The complex employment relationship between temporary agency workers, temp agencies and client employers creates loopholes and incentives that may leave low-wage temp agency workers more vulnerable to workplace injuries, says new research from the Institute for Work & Health.

Published: July 26, 2012

The complex employment relationship between temporary agency workers, temp agencies and client employers creates loopholes and incentives that may leave low-wage temp agency workers more vulnerable to workplace injuries, says new research from the Institute for Work & Health.

Stephen, a construction site manager, is forthcoming about his use of temporary agency workers. I’ll hire a couple of guys for a half a day to unload a container, he says. It’s just heavy-duty work that I’d rather not have my guys doing.

Vince, the owner of a large temp agency, agrees that the use of agency workers to take on the more hazardous work is not out of the norm: it helps his clients keep their own workers’ compensation records clean. He remembers being asked to provide industrial labour to a client who happened to be receiving an award for best health and safety practices. That day, I had two people … rolled out the back door in an ambulance, he says. The client kept his health and safety record up high because he outsourced to staffing companies all the … jobs that required any type of dangerous work ….

These were among the comments heard by Institute for Work & Health Scientist Dr. Ellen MacEachen and her team during their research into job safety and return to work in temporary work agencies. They highlight the structural problems that underpin occupational health and safety (OHS) in these agencies, as reported this spring in Policy and Practice in Health and Safety (vol. 10, no. 1, pp. 77-95).

Our main finding was that low-wage temp agency workers are less well protected because of the complex working relationship in which they find themselves, says MacEachen.

As she explains, agency workers have two employers: the temp agency and the client employer. But temp agencies don’t have control over the worksites to which workers are sent, and often don’t fully know the risks. While both temp agencies and client employers have responsibilities under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, only temp agencies are considered the employer under the province’s workers’ compensation legislation, which weakens the incentives for client employers to protect these workers.

This is not about bad apples, MacEachen adds. It’s about a structural weakness in the regulatory system that leaves temp agency workers without the same protection as regular workers.

In light of this, MacEachen proposes three key changes:

  • experience rating prevention incentives should be applied to client employers;
  • the requirement to set up joint health and safety committees should be applied to temp agencies; and
  • workplaces that regularly hire large numbers of temp agency workers should be subject to proactive inspections by health and safety officers.

Study looks at OHS/RTW in temp agencies

The temp agency sector is an established part of today’s flexible labour market. Yet temp agency work can be risky. For example, in the United States, temp agency workers have higher injury claim rates than those in standard work arrangements, and double the rates in construction and manufacturing. (Comparable statistics for Canada are not collected.)

IWH researchers wanted to understand how temp agencies manage health, safety and return to work, with a specific focus on low-wage workers. They undertook a study that included legal and documentary analysis, as well as focus groups and interviews with agency workers, temp agencies (both multinational and smaller agencies), client employers and key informants, such as inspectors and policy-makers. Sixty-four people took part, in four Ontario locations.

The research team made a number of important findings.

Temp agency efforts to prevent injuries are largely ineffective. This is the case because:

  • they can’t adequately manage health and safety risks when they don’t control the work or own the equipment;
  • although temp agencies may inspect a worksite before placing a worker, work conditions may change from day to day; moreover, temp agencies are not trained to recognize hazards or enforce changes when hazards are found;
  • temp agency workers often face the challenge of being new to worksites and unfamiliar with the work flow, hazards, etc.;
  • agencies rely on workers to report hazards at client worksites, but low-wage temp agency workers may not speak up for fear of losing their job placement or chance of being hired on permanently;
  • even when agencies learn of a hazard, they can do little but withdraw from the workplace (thereby giving up the contract) or “ask nicely” for improvements, leaving workers exposed; and
  • agency workers have no systematic way to provide input on their OHS conditions because temp agencies are not required in practice to have joint health and safety committees.

Client employers have little incentive to improve safety for temp agency workers. Because temp agencies are the employers under Ontario’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, they are the ones subject to experience rating surcharges when worker injuries occur—not client employers who actually control the worksite.

Temp agencies can manage work accident costs. Temp agencies, by and large, prefer to maintain responsibility for claims and costs because it increases business. And they can generally manage accident costs and consequences, as follows:

  • some agencies (involved in this research) discourage injury reports by requiring extensive written accounts of the accident and/or questioning the injury’s legitimacy;
  • agency workers are mostly short-term and rarely subject to the duty to rehire after a workplace injury, and, in any case, rehiring only means putting workers back on the roster, not into jobs with clients;
  • because temp agencies can operate with very little physical infrastructure—“you can run one with a Blackberry,” noted one workers’ compensation regulator—smaller agencies can close and reopen in the face of very high fines or experience rating surcharges, thus avoiding these costs if company directors have no identifiable assets; and
  • because their workers’ comp premiums are sometimes lower than those of their client employers, temp agencies can build these premiums into their contract prices.

Low-wage temp agency workers are less well protected than workers in a standard employment relationship, MacEachen says. “Our research identifies ways that legislation and policies need to catch up with the reality of today’s work conditions.”

For more information, see the research presentation at: www.iwh.on.ca/plenaries/​2012-apr-10. To order the article in Policy and Practice in Health and Safety, go to: www.ingentaconnect.com/content/iosh/pphs/2012/00000010/00000001/art00006.

Watch a video: Health and safety issues for low-wage temp agency workers, featuring Dr. Ellen MacEachen