Avoid the temptation

Workers hired through temporary staffing agencies are less educated on workplace safety, more afraid to speak up

A labourer was digging a sewer line at a residential infill project in Edmonton in 2015 when a wall of the trench collapsed, burying him under more than one metre of clay and dirt. After many hours, firefighters found the worker’s body. He had been crushed to death. The 55-year-old had been hired through a temporary labour agency.  

Over the last two decades, the number of temporary and precarious workers has risen drastically. Many of these workers find employment through temporary staffing agencies. But while temp agencies once provided mostly short-term office or clerical workers, they now send a huge number of workers to industrial work sites. Where work is dangerous, employers have found that hiring workers through temp agencies not only cuts costs — including training costs — but also limits liability when incidents occur. As a result, temp agency workers are far more likely to be injured on the job than permanent workers. Besides implementing stricter legal requirements on both agencies and client companies, it may be difficult to find ways to increase safety for temp employment agency workers. 

It is difficult to know exactly how many temp agency workers there are because Statistics Canada does not isolate numbers of temp agency workers — it combines all temporary workers. In 2012, of the 15 million employed workers in Canada, more than 13 per cent (about 1.9 million) were classified as having temporary employment. This represents a 12-per-cent rise from 2009 figures and outpaces growth in permanent employment by almost double for the same period, according to a report co-authored by Ellen MacEachen, associate professor with the University of Waterloo’s School of Public Health and Health Systems in Ontario. 

Moreover, the number of temp agencies has risen dramatically in the last decade (by 20 per cent in Ontario, for example). At the same time, the number is rising and the agencies have been shifting away from hiring out primarily clerical workers to hiring out staff for non-clerical jobs, such as industrial, manufacturing, construction and driving. Temp workers often have little or no experience for these jobs. 

Research done in many countries has shown temp agency workers also have higher accident rates, MacEachen says. Employers have financial incentives not only to hire temp workers but also to assign them the more dangerous work being done at the work site. 

One of the main reasons companies hire temp agency workers is that they face lower penalties when these workers are injured on the job, compared to their permanent workers, although provincial legislation can vary. Since incidents involving temp agency workers do not show up on the record of the client company, even if it has a high rate of accidents, the company will evade Ministry of Labour (MOL) inspections, MacEachen says.

But in Ontario, for example, under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the client can be held responsible in the case of critical injuries, such as a broken leg, and fatalities.

“If there has been a critical injury to or death of a temp worker and the MOL comes in and they find there has been a breach of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, they would charge the company where the work is taking place, not the temp agency, even though it’s a temporary agency employee,” says Geoff Ryans, partner at Filion Wakely Thorup Angeletti in Toronto. If convicted, the client company could receive a fine, he adds.

Except in the event of a serious injury or fatality, workers’ compensation boards generally ascribe the incident and accident costs to the temp agency, as the worker’s direct employer, rather than the employer who owns the work site where the incident occurred. This logic pertains to premiums, too.

“In the normal course, the insurance premiums that go up are the temp agency’s insurance premiums even if the workplace injury has taken place on the client employer’s site,” Ryans says.

Plenty of risks

A lack of safety training is a serious concern for temporary workers as most temp agencies provide only generic, basic training before sending workers out to a site.

“Workers would tell us they would watch a video on how to lift a box and they pass their WHMIS test. But in terms of the practical conditions, they come into workplaces and they don’t know the lay of the land. Newness is a hazard in itself,” says MacEachen. “There is a lot of research saying that being new on the job is associated with higher accidents. That’s because you’re fumbling around and you don’t know what to do next.”

Her research, which involved interviewing owners and managers of temp agencies, as well as workers, showed why agency workers have higher accident rates. In addition to receiving minimal training, they are always outsiders at work and don’t benefit from the knowledge and support that comes from other workers’ society. 

“Workers will often share tips and tricks with each other, but they may not share tips and tricks with temp workers either because they don’t want the temp workers there or because they don’t develop a social relationship with these people who are just going in and out of their workplace,” says MacEachen.

When a worker joins a company as a new, permanent employee, she explains, they have the advantage of people around them who, knowing they will be working with this new person for some time to come, will take the new person under their wing and perhaps have a buddy system. But workers coming in for a week or two remain isolated and are left to figure things out for themselves.

Without a steady income, temp agency workers are less likely to be concerned with safety. 

“I saw a lot of anxiety about that next dollar coming in and being able to keep the job. So temp workers talk about trying to work faster and harder to make sure they will be asked back the next day,” says MacEachen. “They’re new on the job. They don’t really know the techniques and strategies; they don’t know where things are; they don’t really have any buddies working beside them and they’re trying to work harder and faster to keep that job. And all of that is a recipe for higher risk.”

In Alberta, the recession had a big impact on the economy, especially on oil-related industries, and left many people desperate for work, says Jared Matsunaga-Turnbull, executive director of the Alberta Workers’ Health Centre in Edmonton. Urban centres saw a rise in the number of temp agencies. 

“There’s more of a market there. People who go to temp agencies tend to be those who are more vulnerable in society, people who are already dealing with systemic oppression, racism, sexism.”

Temp agency workers are at a disadvantage also in that they exist outside the basis of many organizations’ safety system, the internal responsibility system (IRS), Matsunaga-Turnbull says. In that system, for occupational health and safety compliance to happen and workplaces to become safer, employers must know their responsibilities and work with their workers, who also have responsibilities and rights. Together, they solve safety problems internally.

“But that system assumes that all parties involved have equal power and knowledge, that an employer will know the law, will be covered by the law and will do everything possible to make the workplace safe. It also assumes the worker has the knowledge and the rights and the power to act on these rights,” he says. “That’s problematic because if workers are accessing a temp agency, they’re already in a precarious state and needing this job. Are they likely to complain about a health and safety issue? That is the mechanism that a worker is expected to trigger in the internal responsibility system that is supposed to protect them.”

The structure of temp agency work also makes temp agency workers more vulnerable to occupational illnesses, Matsunaga-Turnbull says. Working at many jobs for short periods of time puts these workers beyond legal exposure limits to hazards, from noise to carcinogens. An allowable limit applies only to a single workplace. When many sites are involved, it is difficult to monitor the limits.

“If you’re working for a particular employer and they’re following the law, you do your manageable exposure limit. Then you go to your next job and it starts from zero again. So, in an eight-hour period, you could be exposed to toxic levels of something,” he says. “The way your work is structured is exposing you to multiple sites, and together that means you’re going to get sick.” 

Improvements coming

Some provinces are taking steps to increase safety for temp workers. In Alberta, new legislation that came into effect on June 1 requires temp agencies to:

• Ensure the worker is suited to the place of work

• Ensure the worker has, or will be provided by the client employer with, appropriate personal protective equipment 

• Ensure the employer can keep the worker safe. 

In April, the Ontario Ministry of Labour announced it intended to bring into force a section of Bill 18, the Stronger Workplaces for a Stronger Economy Act, 2014, that will require the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board to attribute injuries and incident costs to the client company rather than the temp agency. So client companies in Ontario may soon have to assume more liability for temp workers. But MacEachen says it is difficult to know how much it will actually change things. Once client employers have to accept responsibility for safety incidents, she says, they will start contesting them. While it would be difficult to contest an injury such as a broken leg, there are many other injuries whose cause would be difficult to prove, especially for temp workers who are placed with an employer for short periods of time. 

“Lots of injuries are musculoskeletal claims and soft tissue injuries, back pain, that kind of thing. It will become very difficult for the workers to prove that the origin of the problem was in this workplace and not in the one where they worked last week,” she says. 

“That’s precisely what workers have faced with temp agencies anyway because when temp agencies are the employer of record, that’s what they say to the workers, too. That’s the challenge when you’re working workplace to workplace.”

Looking at more general ways to improve their safety on the job, MacEachen says the biggest challenge regarding temp agency workers is their isolation. Because of the way they work, it’s difficult for them to have some kind of organization of other workers like them, a place where they can take advantage of common shared resources, such as access to health plans and information about what to do in different situations.

“We need to adapt as a society to these newer types of workers who are more scattered and isolated, and to find ways to support them. We’re still adjusting to that,” MacEachen says.

Matsunaga-Turnbull suggests temp agencies could provide some common resources for workers. 

“And maybe some civil society groups — poverty advocate groups or worker centres — would have the power to help either organize or advocate for temp workers or trigger inspections. So it’s not that one worker putting himself or herself at risk. That’s the challenge. Are there mechanisms to organize the unorganized?”

All workers have a right to participate in their own health and safety, he adds. With temp agencies, because work is always short-term, the challenge is how to involve workers in safety. 

“We’re looking at a disposal workforce. Many businesses are set up now to be dependent on short-term jobs with no permanent staffing. If your business plan is set up that way, you’re not actually seeing people who can contribute to your company or organization. You’re just seeing a piece of work,” Matsunaga-Turnbull says. “I think we tend to look at what’s happening in the workplace; we need to expand that out and ask, what’s happening to people when they find themselves in these situations and how is the work itself being structured?”

This article originally appeared in the June/July 2018 issue of Canadian Occupational Safety magazine, a sister publication of CSR. 

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