One of the most thought-stirring sessions at this year’s American Industrial Hygiene Conference and Expo (AIHce) held this week in Salt Lake City is a discussion featuring OSHA boss Dr. David Michaels and Department of Labor Administrator of the Wage and Hour Division Dr. David Weil. They are talking about Dr. Weil’s 2014 book, “The Fissured Workplace: Why work became so bad for so many and what can be done to improve it,” published by the Harvard Press, in the context of workplace safety and health outcomes.

How it happened

According to Dr. Weil, large corporations have shed their role as direct employers of the people responsible for their products, in favor of outsourcing work to small companies that compete with one another. The result, he says: declining wages, eroding benefits, inadequate health and safety protections, and widening income inequality. 

Dr. Michaels and Dr. Weil will discuss the safety and health consequences of employers relinquishing direct control to subcontractors, vendors, and franchises. This transition to a much more fragmented workforce and supply chain makes it difficult to create and sustain cultures of safety in organizations. Instead of command and control and direct oversight and direct employee engagement by the sourcing employer, the hard, dirty and dangerous work is often farmed out. And the contractors assuming worksite risks are often small enterprises with limited and sometimes no safety and health expertise on staff.

Blurred responsibility

Dr. Weil contends that laws such as OSHA regulations that protect workers have not kept pace with “the new boundaries of the fissured workplace.” He says “relentless subcontracting can blur responsibility for safety and put workers in harm’s way.”

Fissured industries with broad-based subcontracting include janitorial services, moving companies, home health care, grocery stores, restaurants and hotels, resident construction, building and grounds security, and retail stores and drug stores. Residential construction often makes use of small independent contractors working with small crews, no safety expertise and no PPE, and these contractors confront frequent and severe risks with roofing safety and falls.

Barely making a dent

OSHA enforcement efforts have traditionally been problematic with small contractors, temp agencies and labor brokers. The agency’s limited inspection force barely makes a dent in filling the risk gaps of the fissured workplace. Dr. Weil says, “We cannot protect the rights of workers solely through enforcement actions. That’s why we are committed to robust outreach to educate employers about their responsibilities under federal labor laws, and to inform workers about their rights.”

The Department of Labor officials are talking about compliance assistance. That’s why very prominent on OSHA’s homepage is a section titled, “Know Your Rights!” featuring a YouTube video on worker’s rights and also a section on protecting temporary workers. Part of OSHA’s strategy here is a grassroots, ground-up campaign aimed at making outsourced workers aware of their safety and health protections under the law. At the same time, OSHA is taking a top down approach and working with major temp agencies and contractor associations to educate employers about their responsibilities to worker protection.

Costs have shifted

Dr. Michaels writes of OSHA’s concerns about the modern workplace in a recent blog: “Employers now provide only a small percentage (about 20%) of the overall financial cost of workplace injuries and illnesses through workers’ compensation. This cost-shift has forced injured workers, their families and taxpayers to subsidize the vast majority of the lost income and medical care costs generated by these conditions.

“Important changes in the structure of the employment relationships in U.S. workplaces are also exacerbating the incidence and consequences of work injuries. The pervasive misclassification of wage employees as independent contractors and the widespread use of temporary workers have increased the risk of injury and the number of workers facing financial hardships imposed by workplace injuries. The change in employment relationships also reduces the incentives for companies to assume responsibility for providing safe working conditions, which may result in increased overall risk of workplace injury.”