It's Tough Being a Temp

Every minute you can give to their orientation gives temporary workers the tools to be safe and most productive.

SAFETY professionals know the importance of providing orientation training to recently hired workers, but what about temporary labor? Given the fast pace of industry these days, providing training for large numbers of "temps" can be a daunting task but is well worth the effort. Not only is safety training required by law, it addresses some very real concerns.

According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), workers with less than 90 days on the job have a far higher incident rate for injuries than seasoned workers. Given that fact, we have to realize temporary workers need the same level of training that is provided to other "new hires." Recently, two episodes gave me a unique perspective in this area--in my position as the safety leader when my employer had to bring in some temporary help and, then, working weekends as a temp for some much-needed cash.

As a safety specialist for a chemical manufacturing plant in Los Angeles County, I have always made it a point to provide safety orientation training for new hires to show them around and inform them about the three main safety programs: Injury and Illness Prevention, Emergency Planning, and Hazard Communication. Such training provides the tools they need to reduce the risk of injury and ensures they know their role in emergency situations. Recently, we found it necessary to bring in temporary labor to complete some in-house projects. For my own peace of mind, I requested and was granted the time to conduct the required training.

Knowing in advance that our temps would be supervised and would not be working in the production area, I had to consider only what would be necessary as far as training them. I met with them on their first day and informed them of the basics--general information on the chemicals present in the workplace, the basics of injury prevention, and emergency response--before a tour of the facility. I informed them about evacuation procedures, the presence of hazardous materials, and general information. Most important, I instructed them on what not to do. There are several potentially hazardous substances in the production area, and the best advice and instruction I could give them was to stay out of areas where they were not to be assigned to work.

This shortened presentation took only about an hour, but I had some confidence I had given them the knowledge to keep them from harm, even in the event of an emergency. Later, I would see how important even this little bit of information could be when it comes to providing peace of mind in strange surroundings.

My Temp Experience
Recently, I found myself in need of some additional income and needed a part-time job. "Just temporary," I told myself as I set out to find something I could fit into my existing schedule. I applied to a local agency that was in the last phases of putting together a temp crew for a major retail chain operating out of a large warehouse in my area. The agency provided basic training and informed us where to report for the assignment, the first night of which would be for more specific, on-the-job training. I pictured spending that first night sitting in a classroom being bored, but it turned out to be something quite different.

I should mention that I was brought in at the last minute, and two days of orientation training had been conducted before the first night I reported for work. I have no idea what was involved in this training, so the others brought in with this group of about 25 mostly young, mostly Hispanic workers may have received more information than I did. I hope this was the case, because my first night of "training" involved loading a tractor-trailer with hanging clothes and pallets of merchandise.

So much for training! It was hard work but not really a problem for me--I'm in fair shape and saw it as a chance for a much-needed workout. I was more concerned that I had not received basic instruction as part of my initiation to the workplace. For one thing, the warehouse was huge. I had no idea where I was most of the time, let alone where the nearest exit was. I struggled to get to and from much-needed breaks on time and at times had to search for a restroom. It appeared I had "slipped through the cracks" in their training program, and I wondered how that could happen.

I was assigned to the sorting area on the second night. Here, the freight came down a conveyor and was sorted for stacking onto pallets. My background allowed me to identify the major hazards of my new work environment: conveyor belts, heavy lifting, and the use of a hand-held laser. I was trained by another temporary worker who made no mention of how to avoid injuries commonly caused by these hazards. I wondered how many of their workers had been, or would be, injured over the course of time, considering how little information was provided to me and (I assumed) to the other members of the group. As I indicated earlier, most of the men on this crew were younger than 25, and I doubted that they had, at that age, much experience in such a workplace. It was a strange feeling knowing these hazards existed and I was unable to do anything about them. There really were no lines of communication with management about the hazards I perceived. I felt as though I was working "under cover," with no higher-ups to whom I could report my findings and observations. The Christmas merchandise had to be distributed and time was a major factor; the rate at which material came off of the conveyor was evidence of that. But I truly worried that the less-informed were being exposed to hazards they had no conception of.

One aspect of my job assignment especially troubled me. To keep the conveyor lines flowing, all sorters had been instructed to remove the freight from the line and place it, or "throw down" the freight to the floor, in front of the destination pallet. From my safety background, I knew an industrial hygienist had surveyed the operation and that the established controls were being circumvented. The conveyor had been installed to prevent constant bending and lifting, but the supervisors' and trainers' instructions meant the sorters spent their entire shift picking up heavy boxes from floor level.

I felt that I knew how the system was supposed to be used and attempted to work in accordance with what I saw as the proper method, even though it was contrary to the accepted practice. I felt conspicuous for doing things differently than everyone else, especially because it was contrary to what they had trained me to do. It was frustrating knowing that lifting boxes off of the floor all night just wasn't right, but I was helpless to change things, except to bring in a back support that I'd had at home and to practice proper lifting procedures.

Meanwhile, I was truly concerned for the other temps. It is widely known that recently hired workers (those with less than 90 days on the job) experience higher incident rates than more experienced employees, and that younger workers also are in a high-risk category. These put this crew doubly at risk--they were all new hires and in an age group that experiences higher injury rates. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and NIOSH, non-fatal incident rate estimates for mature workers are about 2.8 per hundred, while workers between the ages of 17 and 24 experience incidence rates of about 5.3 per hundred. These figures are from a study done of reportable injuries based on 1999 figures (view CDC/NIOSH rate estimate tables), but the numbers are consistently in those ranges and present a source of concern among safety professionals. So I was concerned that no real instruction had been provided.

Lessons Learned
I didn't stay with the job for very long, it was just too discouraging. It bothered me that the company would expose itself to such a liability from possible worker's compensation claims by ignoring the recommendations of its Safety Department. But the experience did teach me one thing: The small investment of time in conducting safety training can help employers minimize injury and worker's compensation claims, enabling temps to be their most productive.

I also saw that corporate-sized resources don't ensure compliance. It's the human factor that brings it all together--that and a commitment from company management.

This column appears in the April 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

Rate estimates of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments

Query Parameters

Year:

Age Group:

Other Variables:

1999

15-17; 18-19; 20-24

Treatment Month, Sex, Diagnosis, Part of Body Affected, ED Disposition, Event, Source, Secondary Source = All

Result

National Estimate (in 1000's)

FTE (in 1000's)

Injury/Illness Rate (Incidents/100FTE)

Confidence Bounds (Incidents/100FTE)

Query Total:

***887.2

16,636

5.3***

±1.5***

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Time: (2 sec)

Rate estimates of nonfatal occupational injuries and illnesses treated in U.S. hospital emergency departments

Query Parameters

Year:

Age Group:

Other Variables:

1999

25-29; 30-34; 35-39; 40-44; 45-49; 50-54

Treatment Month, Sex, Diagnosis, Part of Body Affected, ED Disposition, Event, Source, Secondary Source = All

Result

National Estimate (in 1000's)

FTE (in 1000's)

Injury/Illness Rate (Incidents/100FTE)

Confidence Bounds (Incidents/100FTE)

Query Total:

2,774.7

99,607

2.8***

±0.53**

Tuesday, August 31, 2004

Time: (2 sec)

Important Data Notes:

Source: Centers for Disease Control/NIOSH. Results from "Work RISQS" program injury statistics query at: http://www2.cdc.gov/risqs/default.asp.

This article originally appeared in the May 2005 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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