Temporary, Contract Workers at Higher Risk for Injuries

Studies in the United States and Europe suggest that contingent workers such as part-time, temporary, or contract workers are at higher risk for occupational injuries and illnesses than workers in traditional employment situations, NIOSH researchers report.

Several possible reasons for the higher risk are suggested in the increasing scientific evidence, and warrant further scientific investigation, the researchers stated. The article, "Contingent Workers and Contingent Health: Risks of a Modern Economy," by Kristin J. Cummings, M.D., M.P.H., and Kathleen Kreiss, M.D., was published in the Jan. 30 issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Among the evidence for higher risk among contingent workers, are the following data and reports from the United States, the researchers said:

  • The rate of fatal occupational injuries among self-employed workers is twice the national average for all workers, according to data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
  • The rate of needlestick injuries among temporary nurses caring for AIDS patients in 11 U.S. hospitals was 1.65 times higher than the rate for staff nurses working in the same units.
  • A 2004 survey of day laborers in the U.S. found that 19 percent of the day laborers reported work-related injuries that required medical attention in the previous year, compared with less than 5 percent of workers in all private industries and about 6 percent of all workers in construction.
  • A preliminary analysis of 2000-2004 data shows that contract coal mine workers with at least 15 years of tenure had a higher prevalence of radiographic evidence for coal workers’ pneumoconiosis (black lung) than non-contract coal mine workers.

"As the use of part-time, temporary, and contract work increases in today’s changing economy, it has become more and more important to understand the implications of the trend for occupational safety and health, and to address factors that may put these workers at unique risk," said NIOSH Director John Howard, M.D. "Studies such as these are important in suggesting evidence-based hypotheses in this complex area, and stimulating next steps in research to address unanswered questions."

While contingent workers are a diverse group, ranging from well-paid independent consultants to low-skilled construction workers, they are more likely to be young, female, or Hispanic, and to have lower incomes and fewer benefits than workers in traditional employment, the NIOSH researchers found.

As a concern that also involves issues of personal health, the unpredictable schedule of some contingent positions may contribute to poor eating and exercise habits -- factors in obesity and diabetes.

Studying a population of workers who are not affiliated with one single employer, a population that is transient and dynamic, poses challenges for researchers, the new study said.

However, it added, identifying potential risk factors and designing interventions for preventing injuries and illness, and promoting good health, are "of paramount importance to the health of the nation."

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