CPR Report: Rise in Contract Labor Brings New Worker Safety Threats, Demands New Government Policies in Several Dangerous Industries

by Ben Somberg

January 11, 2013

Just how accountable is an employer to an employee if the employee is only working for one day?

In areas from construction to farm work, warehouse labor to hotel housekeeping, contingent work is growing or already common. Rather than hire permanent, full-time employees directly, many employers hire workers indirectly through 3rd party agencies, or on contracts as short as a day. Too often, workers in these fields see little job security, low wages, minimal opportunities for advancement, and, all too often, hazardous working conditions. Contingent workers are disproportionately racial minorities and often come from vulnerable socio-economic backgrounds.

A new CPR report released today, At the Company’s Mercy: Protecting Contingent Workers from Unsafe Working Conditions, looks at the hazards in these four work areas and the unique safety challenges that arise from contract-based work.

The report argues that safety dangers are magnified because contingent workers don't always get the training they need, and high injury rates are acceptable to many employers since the employees are non-permanent, effectively expendable. Employers who hire workers on a contingent basis do not directly pay for workers’ compensation and health insurance, and are therefore likely to be insulated from the insurance premium rate increases that would ordinarily follow frequent workers’ injuries.

The report issues a set of recommendations for improving safety specifically for contingent workers. Congress can amend the Occupational Safety and Health Act to include a private right-of-action that allows any person to bring suit in federal court against any other person who violates provisions of the statute or its implementing regulations. And the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) should take a number of steps, including establishing rules to require employers to provide better training; strengthening enforcement in industries where contingent work is prevalent; and issue ergonomics standards in the industries in which contingent workers suffer high rates of musculoskeletal injuries.

The report was written by CPR Member Scholars Martha McCluskey, Thomas McGarity, and Sidney Shapiro, and Senior Policy Analyst Matthew Shudtz.

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