September 13, 2011 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 3Comment

March 2, 2011 may have seemed like any other workday for David Clark Jr., 51, when he arrived at the Lee Creek potash mine in Aurora, NC at 5:50 am to start his shift. Clark and a small crew would be excavating a large ditch near the R9 roadway and burying a 22-inch diameter polyethylene (HDPE) pipe. The pipe would be used to carry the “slurry” created by processing the phosphate ore.

The task involved fusing four large sections of the HDPE pipe together to make one length of pipe. Clark was a 24-year employee of Trader Construction Company and had worked as a contractor at the Lee Creek mine for 20 years. His co-workers were contractors, too, including the pipe fusion machine operator also employed by Trader Construction, and two excavator operators employed by the temp agencies Holden Temporaries Inc. and Labor Quick. With the excavator operators holding their respective pieces of pipe, they moved the pipe sections toward the fusing machine. David Clark was helping to align one of the suspended pipes when it slipped from the machine cradle and struck him. He was fatally injured.

How do I know that two of the workers were employed by temp agencies?

The Labor Department’s Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) notes it prominently in its investigation report, along with mentioning their tenure with the temp firms: 19 months for one, and 3 years for the other. I was pleased to see these facts included in the MSHA report. It reflects the reality of many of today’s workplaces where your co-workers are employed by somebody else. In this case, the Lee Creek mine is owned by the Canadian firm Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan. The mine employs 385 people and Trader Construction employs another 152 individuals on the site. The inspection history at the Lee Creek mine suggests at least a dozen other firms routinely have their own workers at the site, some of whom might also be provided by temporary staffing firms.

Firms that provide temporary workers to other firms are one part of the U.S. labor market that remains stable and continues to grow. According to the American Staffing Association, more than 2 million people per day are employed in the U.S. by a staffing company, and 8.6 million workers are employed annually through temp-agency assignments. An August 2010 article by BLS economists describes the expansion of the temp-labor industry over the last 20 years. Knowing that, it seems our worker injury surveillance system should adjust to that reality. MSHA appears to be doing that better than OSHA.

Under MSHA regulations, all firms that provide contracted labor and services at mining operations are required to register with the agency and obtain a contractor ID number. Hundreds of firms are listed in MSHA’s database, such as Labor Ready, Labor Finders, Labor Express, Coastal Labor, Mountain Labor and Hard Labor. They are also required to report quarterly to MSHA the number of hours worked by their employees and any injuries sustained by them.

That’s a good first step to help us ascertain the injury risk for temp workers with assignments at mining operation. At anytime I can use MSHA’s data retrieval system to see what any specific employer, including temp-labor providers, have reported to MSHA on employee work hours and injuries. It’s far from enough however because some portion, perhaps many of these workers, may also be assigned to workplaces not covered by the MSHA injury surveillance requirements. Constructions sites, for example, are subject to OSHA regulations and it does not have employer-specific injury and work-hour reporting requirement.

When I look at inspection data available on OSHA’s website, I see firms such as Manpower and Kelly Services, with the industry code listed refering to the temp-agency employer (NAICS 561320). The data would be much more informative, however, if OSHA also provided information on the industry group the affected workers were assigned. I’ve learned of temp workers assigned to washing dishes in a restaurant, providing patient care in a hospital, sorting solid waste at a recycling center, and operating heavy equipment on a construction site. Rather than only thinking of the temp-agency as the employer, that data needs to be merged with information on where the worker is assigned and the types of tasks he or she performs.

The pipe-fusing and excavation task performed by the late David Clark Jr. and his temp-worker colleagues was a disaster waiting to happen. MSHA investigators concluded:

“Management engaged in aggravated conduct constituting more than ordinary negligence in that defects affecting safety on the machine were not corrected in a timely manner to prevent the creation of a hazard to persons.”

They found the positioning cylinder on the fusing machine had been removed from the machine eight days prior to the accident. It was defective, but had not been replaced or fixed.

An uncorrected hazard puts every exposed worker at risk, no matter whether you’re a traditional employee, a long-term contractor, or a temp worker. In this case, David Clark, Jr., 51, was the victim.

3 thoughts on “A peek at health and safety for temporary workers

  1. Unfortunately, this is another horror story that demonstrates the lack of protection provided during contingent (aka precarious) employment.

    However, I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “Clark … had worked as a contractor …” and “(h)is co-workers were contractors, too, …”

    The article indicates that they were direct employees of the temporary agencies, not contractors in the usual sense, but assigned to work at the potash mine.

    But we usually don’t characterize directly employed temp workers as “contractors”. And given their employment with the temp agency, it seems that they wouldn’t be considered “independent contractors”.

    Disclaimer: These comments are not necessarily shared by my employer.

  2. Jim,
    I was using the term “contractor” in the manner used by the Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA). A worker is either employed by the mine operator (i.e., a “mine employee”) or is employed by another company contracted by the mine operator to perform specific assignments (i.e., “contractor”) Your comment suggests that I should look for ILO definitions for “contingent,” “contractors,” “precarious,” etc.

  3. It’s bad to see temporary workers getting treated the way they do. Part of the problem is there is a preconceived notion that they are dispensable because they do not have to hire them the next day so they do not care about things they normally would with a regular employee. It’s not good and nobody should do it but it seems to come with the territory.

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