Gretchen L. Watson, Ph.D.

Extraordinary People

Paying Attention to Injuries Among Temporary Workers

Injuries reflect safety climate, not lack of employee motivation.

Posted Oct 21, 2016

U.S. employees and their employers are required to report to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) any work-related injury or illness that results in death, loss of consciousness, days away from work, restricted job duty or transfer, or medical treatment beyond first aid.  Accordingly, in 2014 roughly 3 million U.S. workers were injured on the job and several thousand died.  Staggering as these numbers are, they only capture about one-third of all work-related injuries and illnesses. 

Reporting Disincentives

There are real disincentives to accurately report safety-related incidents that result in harm.  Notably, in some industries the ability to win a government contract is dependent upon having a sufficiently low rate of work-related injuries and illnesses. Also, research has documented that when layoffs are necessary, employers tend to retain employees who have not experienced work-related injuries regardless of their productivity levels.

Injuries Among Temporary Employees

Government agencies have begun to play closer attention to safety training of temporary workers. Data compiled over a 5-year period revealed that injury rates are 36–72% higher among temporary workers compared to permanent employees.  This is not surprising because companies tend to invest less time and effort into the training of temporary workers. 

As safety consultants, colleagues and I have heard plenty of negative comments about the impact temporary workers have on company safety records. Upticks in accidents and injuries are often blamed on temporary workers due to their “lack of motivation” rather than legitimate organizational issues.  However, new data calls this assumption into question.

Modern Canary in the Coal Mine

Psychologist Tahira Probst and colleagues have conducted a series of investigations across a range of industries and sizable number of companies and projects. They have documented that temporary workers have, indeed, limited safety knowledge, training, and compliance. But that's not all they have learned.

By comparing OSHA recorded events with Worker’s Compensation data, Probst has discovered that temporary workers more accurately report safety accidents and injuries than do permanent employees.  As such, the rate of injury reported by temporary workers may be a powerful indicator of the strength of a company’s safety culture. 

Job Insecurity Compounds Injury Risks

The economic reasons for relying on temporary workers are the same reasons that increase job insecurity among permanent employees, which affects both safety compliance and reporting—though in different ways among temporary and permanent workers.  As job insecurity increases, safety compliance generally decreases. However, under conditions of high job insecurity, permanent workers are less likely to report and injury (a “don’t rock the boat” mentality) while temporary workers are more likely to report injuries (because they have “nothing to lose.”)

Because companies are responsible for providing Worker’s Compensation insurance for all workers, incentives for underreporting are not as great as perceived.  Current compensation figures indicate that private employers pay $32.29 per hour worked; government employers pay still more. On the one hand, each injury involves direct and indirect costs and has the potential to increase a company’s insurance premiums for up to three years.  On the other hand, creating a company culture that decreases the chance of safety risks, oversights, and injuries positively impact the bottom line for just as long or longer.

A Sliver Lining

The global financial crisis that has caused employers to turn to temporary workers in record numbers has increased safety risks.  However, the silver lining is that the injury data of temporary workers is a more realistic barometer of a company’s safety culture. By heeding signals from temporary workers and strengthening their safety culture accordingly, companies can protect all workers while reducing their worker’s compensation costs—a winning strategy over the long haul.

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