ISHN

If a temp dies on the job, does it count?

May 5, 2014

jobs“There’s a sense that a new guy’s life isn’t worth as much ‘cos he hasn’t put his time in yet.” Chris Taylor, Platoon

“Temp” as in temporary; a temporary person. The designation shows how much value we tend to place on those in the workforce who won’t be around very long. It doesn’t make much sense to throw away money on something you don’t intend to keep, and so it is for the safety of a growing number of temporary workers and contractors who, in the eyes of so many employers (and too many of their safety professionals) don’t count as much as long-term employees.

Increasingly, companies have been out-sourcing the dirtiest, most dangerous jobs to smaller firms and replacing full-time workers with contract employees or temporary workers, “temps”.

I urge you to watch the attached youtube video. It tells the story of a young worker, Larry Daquan “Day” Davis, who landed his first job as a temporary worker at a Barcardi plant in Florida. Spoiler alert: he is killed 90 minutes into the first job he has ever had. The video is brief, and it isn’t overly melodramatic and won’t try to manipulate your emotions by tugging at your heart strings.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cNcsTRQNZLE 

Who’s to blame for young “Day” Davis’s life?

An executive who refused to invest in a safer workplace? Maybe.

A plant manager who failed to correct a known hazard? Maybe.

An over-zealous operations manager who valued production at all costs? Maybe.

The foreman who sent Davis into harm’s way unsupervised? Maybe.

The human resource manager who decided that Davis didn’t need adequate training (and before someone sounds off that I don’t KNOW that he had inadequate training, let me just say that if you are placed in a position that can kill you 90 minutes into your first job you probably haven’t been trained well enough. I will even go so far as to say that if you get killed on the job in this way you don’t have the skills to even be on a manufacturing floor, let alone crawling around in a machine’s blind spot.) Maybe. 

Or even an indifferent safety professional who figured he or she had enough to do and didn’t have time to worry about the safety of a “temp”? Maybe. 

I don’t know that any of these things were true on that fateful August day, but I DO know that these attitudes toward temporary workers and contractors exist in enough workplaces to make this a problem; a big problem.

It was an accident

No one, at least so far as can be ascertained, set out to kill young Day Davis on his first day of work, not even two full hours into his first shift on his first job. Never-the-less, Davis died horrifically before he even got his first paycheck.

This happened, August 16, 2012, and the fallout wasn’t exactly earth-shattering. OSHA cited Barcardi with 12 violations and recommended a fine of $192,000; the price you pay for ending a young worker’s life. There was no public outcry, no one organized boycotts against Barcardi, no criminal charges were filed; when it comes to temps nobody seems to care all that much. The death of a temp is a shame and little else.

Because contractors “don’t count”

Years ago I was talking to a safety professional about the death of a contractor at one of the facilities for which he was responsible. When I asked about the fatality, he said, “It was a contractor, so it didn’t count” before catching himself. I won’t beat up on him, he felt worse about the death than a lot of people would have, but his immediate reaction is telling.

We as safety professionals (and companies) have become so concerned with measurements and statistics that we are losing touch with the human side of safety. When our first reaction at the death or serious injury of a contractor is relief that it doesn’t count against our body count we have lost our way; we are seriously out of touch with all the safety slogans, and philosophies, and zero-injury goals that plaster the wall.

It’s easy to see how the idea that contractors and temps “don’t count” developed.

Laws against “co-employment” muddy the waters regarding just who may be legally trained without violating the tax code and who may not. For the record, as I understand it, employers have a shared responsibility for training temporary workers and contractors on safety. What then, constitutes safety training? I doubt that Day received the basic training required by law, given that he was killed less than two hours into his career, but suppose he had? Would Hazard Communication and Right-To-Know or some hackneyed safety orientation have saved him?

I doubt it.

But if he had been given training such that he would have understood how the equipment worked and what it did, he might have recognized the dangers and been able to save his life.

The client-company must step up

Too often companies hire contractors and hope for the best, when it comes to worker safety. They count on the employers of record to meet the government standards for safety, but too often the contract house or temp agency lacks the resources to provide adequate training to their workers, and many and more couldn’t care less.

The contract employment business is a cut-throat industry where clients squeeze margins tighter and tighter and temps and contractors are increasingly forced to cut costs just to survive. What’s more, many contractors have few enough employees that many government regulations may not apply to them. The end result is that increasingly, young workers, immigrants, and working poor are put at severe risk.

While I don’t let the temp agencies and contract houses off the hook, they don’t often know the specific working conditions in which one of their workers will be placed. In many cases, minimally trained recruiters race against the clock to get workers placed in their client’s facilities. And the worse the safety of the client the higher the turnover, creating a churning of workers; it’s a perfect situation for disaster.

It’s a matter of ethics

Some will argue that temp workers and contractors fill a valuable niche and that some industries would be unable to compete were it not for these workers. I say that companies who employ temps to avoid becoming employers of record, or who churn employees every 89 days to prevent them from becoming full time, or who otherwise look for the cheapest labor and balk at even the smallest investment in safety should be run out of the business. 

Many temps work in a climate of fear so pervasive that the merest mention of a reluctance to work in an unsafe situation brings the threat of dismissal. A worker (not a temp) once told me that “We have to get our safety under control or the company will move our jobs to a country that doesn’t care about safety;” but in the minds of temps they already live in a country that doesn’t care about their safety.

If you don’t act who will?

Before you dismiss this as more of my ranting and outrageous provocation consider the fate of your children, or grandchildren as they enter the workforce desperate for work and grateful for their first jobs.

Imagine your pride as you see them go off to what will be the first step towards a long and successful career, and then imagine them dead on a filthy factory floor, crushed to death like Day Davis.

Imagine them killed, because in the minds of too many employers they were nothing more than temps, who, after all, just don’t matter.