Study highlights safety challenges among temp workers

New research from the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) shows temporary workers hired through third-party temp agencies may be at higher risk of injury on the job than their permanent, full-time counterparts.
Problems with on-the-job safety protection for temp agency workers can occur because their temp agencies have no control over the worksites they send them to, the study concludes.

A presentation of key study findings recently at the Institute for Work and Health, an independent not-for-profit Toronto-based research organization, examined how health and safety policies are carried out in temporary work situations in relation to low-wage jobs.

Temp agencies present a special health and safety case, because workers are hired by one company, the agency, but go to work at another, the client employer, said Dr. Ellen MacEachen, IWH scientist and study author who presented the findings.

“The temp agency situation was intriguing to us because it’s a triangular employment relationship,” she said.

“We wondered how workers are actually protected. Who looks out for them? And how do you manage injuries when you work for a temp agency? We see them as vulnerable workers.”

Ideally, MacEachen said, the agencies provide their workers with generic safety training, most likely WHMIS (Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System), along with other relevant instructions, such as safe lifting. The client employer is then supposed to show the worker where and what the specific site hazards are.

In practice, however, temp workers don’t always receive safety training when they arrive at the site, she added. While they may be told about the rules, more subtle safety measures such as  techniques regular workers may have developed to handle materials safely are not necessarily shared, and their sheer lack of familiarity with a workplace renders these measures ineffective.

“We had workers talking about stumbling around, falling over and knocking things over when they come to a new warehouse because they’re just not oriented to it. They’re not familiar with what’s going on. They’re just trying to work fast to keep up. But you don’t really know what you’re doing and [can] get hurt that way,” she said.

“Even though the workers are supposed to see prevention videos and the client employer outlines the hazards, it’s not the same thing as working in a workplace and knowing it.”

While the Ministry of Labour takes the position that temp workers will be protected by the joint health and safety committees at the client employer’s site, the study’s evidence suggests temp workers have their own health and safety needs that are not covered by the client employer. They need their own committees to discuss the special risks they face, such as handling newness on the job, knowing who to talk to when something goes wrong, and how to speak up without risking your job placement.

“Every workplace in Ontario, except temp agencies, are required to have this JHS committee. So we see workers lacking protection that every other worker has,” she said.

The study also found that safety inspections done by the agencies are largely ineffective, she added. Some agencies said they inspect client employers before sending workers there. But the staff who conduct the inspections, though they may have had some health and safety training, are generally not trained health and safety inspectors. As well, because they were dealing with unfamiliar workplaces, they sometimes don’t know what to look for.

“You have people who get hurt because of that. For [agencies] to do an inspection doesn’t really protect the worker,” she said.

Even a good inspection by an agency, she adds, can quickly be made obsolete by changing conditions. Some temp agency owners said they sometimes did inspections, and then a few days later would learn, for example, that safety guards had been removed from machinery to speed production.

In fact, MacEachen said, the inability of agencies to properly assess the safety of their client companies leads some to rely on their workers to report back on hazards. This method of trying to assess risk is clearly flawed, she added, because the agencies are not able to see for themselves.

As well, low-wage temporary workers who are under-employed are often reluctant to speak up and criticize an employer. “What we found with these workers is that they’re not doing those jobs by choice. They want to have a full-time job and get hired on,” she said. 

“So you don’t want to do anything to jeopardize your placement. If there’s a risk, you think, ‘I’ll just get through it, I’ll probably be okay.’ Or you think, ‘If I work hard and don’t complain, maybe they’ll hire me.’”

Sometimes, agencies themselves don’t want to complain to the client company about hazards or to tell them they plan to take their workers out because of safety concerns, MacEachen said. Instead of insisting a dangerous situation be corrected, one agency staffer told her, the company just slowly stopped sending workers there.

They won’t remove them all at once, the staffer admitted, because the company might owe them money and not pay them. “So they’re balancing the workers’ risks against their need to keep having contracts,” she said.

The study also pointed to the reactive nature of agencies to on-the-job safety, she added. On one occasion, an agency saw an unguarded opening on a construction site. After asking the client company several times to put it right and then learning nothing had been done, they removed their worker.

“But they can only ask nicely. It doesn’t anticipate risk; it’s only after the fact,” she said.

The lack of clearly defined responsibility for workers’ safety is reflected in provincial law, MacEachen said. Under Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act, both the agency and the client employer are considered the employers, but under the Workplace Safety and Insurance Act, only the agency is the employer.

Incentives offered by workers’ compensation to improve safety also differ between the two companies. Because only the agency is considered the employer of the temp worker, only it receives the prevention incentive that comes with experience-rated premiums. (Companies with better than expected safety and sick-day records receive rebates on their premiums.)

And because client employers do not receive an incentive regarding temp workers, MacEachen said, they are motivated to outsource the riskiest jobs. An agency worker may have an accident at their site, but it will go onto the agency’s record, helping companies keep their own accident rate clean.

When a worker is killed, both the client employer and agency are fined under the OHS Act, she noted.

“But the prevention incentive on a day-to-day basis is on the agency, not the client employer. So it basically encourages client employers to shift all the dirty work to the agencies, who can’t protect their workers properly.”

To protect temp workers, study authors recommend that the workers’ compensation prevention incentive be applied to the client employer. The company that truly controls the worksite, MacEachen said, would then have a stake in making sure all workers on its premises are safe.

They also propose that temp agency workers have access to JHS committees in practice and that companies that hire large numbers of temp workers undergo proactive inspections.

However, she added, bringing change to the current situation may prove challenging because both client employers and agencies are satisfied with the status quo.

“They’re both doing very well out of this relationship. The one party that isn’t doing well out of it is the workers,” she said.

“[Workers] are really grateful for the work, but what we’re saying is these workers don’t have access to the same health and safety protections as do other workers in Ontario. And that’s not right.”

The Ministry of Labour would not comment on the findings, saying they needed time to study them, a spokesperson said.

The study, which focused on low-wage, unskilled jobs in manufacturing and warehouses, was based on qualitative, rather than quantitative, research: authors conducted 64 interviews with a range of sources, including temp agencies, temp workers (some who had suffered accidents), client employers, key informants (including people who hold key positions in workers’ compensation), Ministry of Labour officials, safety inspectors and lawyers.