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7 Strategies to Improve Safety for Contingent Workers

Press Release   •   Feb 15, 2013 00:10 EST

Construction workers, farm laborers, warehousing employees and hotel   workers are more likely to be employed on a contingent basis in the   United States, which may make them vulnerable to occupational hazards.   In a new white paper, the Center for Progressive Reform highlights the   occupational safety and health concerns faced by contingent workers and   shares strategies to improve their working conditions.

The white paper “At the Company’s Mercy:   Protecting Contingent Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions,” by CPR   member scholars Martha McCluskey, Thomas McGarity, Sidney Shapiro and   Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz, highlights the occupational   challenges facing contingent workers in the United States and suggests   strategies to improve their working conditions.
“Their shared experience is one of little   job security, low wages, minimal opportunities for advancement, and,   all too often, hazardous working conditions,” the white paper says of   workers whose employment is contingent upon short-term fluctuations in   demand for employees. “When hazards lead to work-related injuries, the   contingent nature of the employment relationship can exacerbate the   negative consequences for the injured worker and society.”

Employers of contingent workers often do   not pay for workers’ compensation or health insurance and can simply   hire replacements when workers are injured – factors that give these   employers little financial incentive to eliminate safety hazards or help   injured workers return to work. Additionally, employers sometimes   misclassify contingent workers as “independent contractors” in order to   claim the workers will pay their own taxes and insurance – a practice   that reduces the employer’s expenses while also removing the incentive   to create a safe workplace, the paper states.

The white paper includes case studies on   contingent workers in four industries: farming, construction,   warehousing and hospitality. The construction industry, for example,   employs a disproportionate number of contingent workers in the United   States. Most of these workers are young men, and many are Hispanic or   Latino, performing dangerous jobs that have a high risk for falls,   nail-gun injuries, musculoskeletal injuries and more.

7 Ways to Protect Contingent Workers

The CPR white paper offered seven strategies to ensure the contingent work force is protected:

1. Empower workers with a stronger right-to-know. “Well-educated   and well-trained workers are the most empowered – they know their   rights, they know when they have been wronged, and they know the best   way to correct a hazardous work environment,” the report states.   “Contingent workers do not get enough education and training.”
  2. Empower workers with a right-to-act.“Under   current law, workers lack the power to commence legal action on their   own accord against an employer that is breaking the law; instead, they   must make a formal complaint to OSHA compliance and await the agency’s response   ...Workers need to be able to wield power that is proportionate to their   huge stake in the game. That power should come in the form of an   amendment the OSH Act that would create a legal vehicle for enforcing   worker rights against employers,” the paper asserts.
  3. Strengthen OSHA enforcement. The   paper claim that “OSHA could make a significant impact on health and   safety in contingent workers’ lives through modifications to existing   enforcement policies ... In addition, OSHA has the ability to test the   new policies for effectiveness by implementing them in discrete   geographical areas or selected industries.”
  4. Create ergonomics standards. “Since   ergonomic hazards pose significant risks in industries and occupations   that employ many contingent workers, OSHA should establish regulations   to eliminate those hazards,” the paper states. “...OSHA could issue a   series of industry-specific ergonomics rules, geared toward particular   hazards. Starting with industries that employ a significant number of   contingent workers would lead to better protections for millions of   workers without coming close to the alleged $4 trillion price tag that   prompted the congressional veto of the broader standard in 2001.”
  5. Reform voluntary and consultation programs. “As   the contingent workforce grows, OSHA has an obligation to revisit   existing programs to ensure that they meet the needs of contingent   workers,” the paper asserts. “First, OSHA should revise the minimum   criteria that companies must meet to be part of the Voluntary Protection   Program (VPP) ... Given the health and safety concerns raised by   employer decisions to place contingent workers in new and high-hazard   jobs, VPP entry criteria should be revised to require that VPP employers   only use contingent workers in low-hazard occupations such as clerical   work.”
  6. Build a case to close statutory loopholes. “OSHA   should also determine if there are data that support closing loopholes   in the OSH Act that limit the statute’s applicability to domestic   workers and farmworkers on small farms,” the white paper added.
  7. Improve foreign-language capabilities. According to the white paper, “the high number of Hispanic workers in   the contingent workforce suggests that language barriers can create   challenges for education and training ... In addition to hiring more   bilingual inspectors, OSHA must increase the foreign-language   capabilities of staff who develop education and training materials. The   agency should establish a goal of making all of these materials   available in multiple languages and formats, reflecting not only the   spectrum of workers’ native languages, but also differences in culture   and literacy.”
  “As the contingent worker population grows, the occupational   safety and health community will have to adapt,” the paper concluded.   “OSHA Compliance Training can lead the way with new rules and better enforcement, but the   agency will also need the help of other advocacy organizations, from   union-affiliated campaigns to worker centers to faith-based groups.   Because the contingent workforce is particularly vulnerable to unfair   treatment and poor working conditions, empowering these workers to act   will take the support of many advocates.”

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