By Dr. David Michaels, guest commentary
Bay Area Insider
November 16, 2013
David Eleidjian, a 26-year-old Marine and Iraq War veteran, was mixing industrial adhesive last April at his new job at the Henkel Corporation, a manufacturing plant in Bay Point. Eleidjian was a temporary worker, hired through a staffing agency. He was assigned to use a 55-gallon mixer instead of the manufacturer-recommended 300-gallon mixer.
He was instructed to scrape adhesive from the mixing equipment that was just 12 inches from an unguarded shaft spinning at up to 350 rotations per minute. The coveralls he had been provided were too big, and the sleeves hung loose on his arms.
When one of his sleeves caught on the exposed rotating shaft, he was pulled into the mixer and crushed. He was rushed to a hospital, where he died from his injuries.
Perhaps, Eleidjian thought he should overlook the signs of danger because he trusted that his supervisor would never assign him a life-threatening task.
This would have been a reasonable assumption for a Marine, who had learned to trust fellow Marines with his life.
Over the last year, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration has received far too many reports of temporary workers killed on the job. Some have even been in their first few days at work.
We have known for a century that new workers are at increased risk for occupational injury and fatality, and that higher risk is due to a lack of safety training and experience at that worksite.
Just a few decades ago, temporary work was relatively rare and concentrated in white-collar professions.
But in recent years their numbers have grown dramatically, and temporary workers are now commonplace in virtually every type of workplace.
According to the American Staffing Association, there are almost 3 million temporary workers in the nation’s workforce today — many doing highly hazardous construction and manufacturing work.
Securing temporary workers often lowers costs (the temporary workers are paid as much as 30 percent less than permanent workers) and increases flexibility by enabling host employers to increase their workforce without making a long-term hiring commitment.
As our economy picks up steam, these numbers are rising again, and more employers are filling jobs with temporary workers. As their numbers grow, I fear that too many more will be injured or killed.
Why is this happening? Many employers decide to forego important safety training for their temporary employees that would normally be given to permanent employees.
They bring in “temps” for a few days, weeks or even months, and the employer’s commitment to these workers’ safety mirrors that “temp” status.
The reason? Employers hire temps to save money. Safety training is a cost of doing business, so some employers just skip it or erroneously assume that the staffing agency has conducted the training — gambling not only with their own bottom lines, but with the lives of these men and women who want nothing but to do an honest day’s work and come home safely to their families at the end of the day.
So, as the number of temporary workers rises, is it inevitable that injuries and fatalities will rise as well? I refuse to accept that assumption.
We know why these workers are getting hurt and we know how to stop it. The Occupational Safety and Health Act is very clear.
Staffing agencies and their client employers who host temporary workers share the legal obligation to provide workplaces free of recognized hazards.
This includes providing required safety training in a language and vocabulary workers can understand.
Cutting corners on safety can result in both terrible tragedy and stiff OSHA penalties. Following the investigation into David Eleidjian’s death, Cal/OSHA fined the employer $200,000. No penalty will bring Eleidjian back to his mother, his stepfather, or his 3-year-old daughter. But perhaps that penalty will cause other employers to think twice before they try to dodge safety laws.
OSHA has embarked on a national initiative to protect temporary workers in order to halt this rising toll of fatal injuries.
OSHA inspectors will determine, in every inspection, if every temporary worker on the site has received the safety training and protections required by law for the job. If they haven’t, we will hold their employers accountable.
At the same time, we are reaching out to labor staffing agencies, explaining how these firms must insist that their employees are not put at risk of injury or death while working at a client employer’s worksite.
And finally, we are making sure that every worker in the country understands that they have the right to safe workplaces, and all workers, including temporary workers, have the right to contact OSHA, if they face workplace hazards.
We’re not going to wait for another worker to be killed.
No worker’s first day on the job should be their last day of their life.
Dr. David Michaels is assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.
[To read the original Op-Ed click on this link]