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Temps: America's Throwaway Workers

A fatal accident at a chemical factory exposes the dangers faced by temporary workers across the country.

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 7:06 AM EST

Carbot and Carlos Jr. began driving to the clinic, 13 miles south of Humboldt Park, but diverted west to Loyola Hospital when Meza told them that's where Centeno would be heading.

Carlos Jr. and Carbot got there first, watching ambulance after ambulance pull up. "I remember just walking up to all the ambulances and it was someone else," Carlos Jr. said. "It wasn't my dad. It just makes you more anxious."

At 3:08 p.m., more than 98 minutes after he had been burned, Carlos Sr. made it to Loyola. "When they finally opened the doors and I saw it was him, I could just see he was in pain," Carlos Jr. said. "He was trying to hide it. He saw my mom and I could see his eyes started to tear."

Carlos Centeno Sr. died three weeks later, on December 8. OSHA, which learned of his death from the Cook County medical examiner, began its inspection of Raani the next day. Its last visit to the plant had been in 1993, when, responding to a worker complaint, it cited the company for six alleged violations—including failing to protect workers from unexpected energizing or startup of machines—and proposed a $9,500 fine. Raani settled the case for $6,500 in 1994.

In an emailed statement, OSHA said no follow-up inspection was conducted. This is "not unusual," the agency said, "as long as we receive documentation from the employer that the violations were corrected."

The dangers of temp work

The use of contingent workers by US employers has soared over the past two decades. In 1990, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, there were about 1.1 million such workers; as of August 2012, the number was 2.54 million, down slightly from pre-recession levels but climbing.

The American Staffing Association, a trade group, says the hiring of contingent workers allows employers to staff up at their busiest times and downsize during lulls. Temporary work enables employees to have flexible hours and "provides a bridge to permanent employment," the group says on its website.

Recent research, however, suggests a dark side to contingent work.

A study published this year of nearly 4,000 amputations among workers in Illinois found that 5 of the 10 employers with the highest number of incidents were temp agencies. Each of the 10 employers had between six and 12 amputations from 2000 through 2007. Most of the victims lost fingertips, but some lost legs, arms or hands.

The researchers, from the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Public Health, called the glut of amputations a "public health emergency," inflicting psychological and physical harm and costing billions.

Another study, published in 2010, found that temp workers in Washington State had higher injury rates than permanent workers, based on a review of workers' compensation claims. In particular, temp workers were far more likely to be struck by or caught in machinery in the construction and manufacturing industries.

"Although there are no differences in the [OSHA] regulations between standard employment workers and temporary agency employed workers, those in temporary employment situations are for the most part a vulnerable population with few employment protections," wrote the researchers, with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries.

"In every other walk of life, if a person engages in willful conduct that results in someone else's death, we throw the book at them. But if someone dies on the job, the rules are different."

In fact, experts say, there's little incentive for host employers to rigorously train and supervise temp workers because staffing agencies carry their comp insurance. If an agency has a high number of injuries within its workforce, it—not the host employer—is penalized with higher premiums.

"This is really about an abdication of responsibility," said Tom Juravich, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who has studied the temp worker phenomenon. "If some of the jobs in your facility are undesirable and dangerous, you outsource them to people who won't complain. If you have a direct worker who's injured, you have an obligation to him through workers' comp. If he's a contingent worker, you don't have that obligation."

As part of a three-year study, researchers in Canada interviewed temp workers and managers at temp agencies and client companies. "To be frank," one agency manager confided, "clients hire us to have temps do the jobs they don't want to do." Coauthor Ellen MacEachen, of the University of Toronto and the Institute for Work and Health, said, "Even if [temp workers] are not cheaper, they're more disposable…You can get rid of them when you want, and you don't pay benefits."

Bureau of Labor Statistics numbers say contingent workers' injuries are declining. Yet, new evidence suggests these injuries are undercounted.

In a BLS-funded project completed last summer, officials with the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries interviewed 53 employers who had used temp workers. Only one-third said they would enter a temp worker injury in their OSHA log, as the law requires. The others said they wouldn't or claimed ignorance. "A lot of them just didn't know" the rules, said Dr. David Bonauto, the department's associate medical director.

The executive director of the Chicago Workers' Collaborative, which advocates for temp workers, says OSHA should target employers known to make heavy use of staffing agencies.

"The rise of the staffing industry is partially to give companies a greater distance from regulation," said Leone José Bicchieri. "OSHA needs to come up with different approaches for this rapidly growing sector"—meeting with temp workers offsite, for example, so they're not intimidated by supervisors.

Temp workers are often reluctant to report injuries because they are so easily replaced, Bicchieri said.

"They have no power to speak up," he said. "The whole temp industry was created so the client company has less liability. We need to put workplace injuries back on the plate of the client company."

Stephen Dwyer, the American Staffing Association's general counsel, cautioned against an OSHA crackdown on temp agencies. "To the extent that efforts become heavy-handed, there can be a disincentive, then, to using temporary workers," Dwyer said, to the detriment of the workers, client employers and "the overall economy."

In a statement, OSHA said it "feels strongly that temporary or contingent workers must be protected. They often work in low wage jobs with many job hazards—and employers must provide these workers with a safe workplace."

The agency said it has brought a number of recent enforcement actions against employers for accidents involving temp workers. In June, for example, OSHA cited Tribe Mediterranean Foods for 18 alleged violations following the death of a worker at its plant in Taunton, Mass. The worker—not properly trained, according to OSHA—was crushed by two rotating augers while cleaning a machine used to make hummus. The case was closed after Tribe agreed to fix hazards and pay a $540,000 fine.

"While some employers believe they are not responsible for temporary workers…OSHA requires that employers ensure the health and safety of all workers under their supervision," the agency said.

Weak law, few prosecutions

Although the Galassi memo recommends criminal action in the Centeno case, employers in America are rarely prosecuted for worker deaths.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 is exceptionally weak when it comes to criminal penalties. An employer found to have committed flagrant violations that led to a worker's death faces, at worst, a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail.

An employer found to have committed flagrant violations that led to a worker's death faces, at worst, six months in jail. A violation of the Endangered Species Act carries a maximum sentence of one year.

By comparison, a violation of the Endangered Species Act carries a maximum sentence of one year.

"It should not be the case that a facility that commits willful violations of the worker safety laws faces only misdemeanor charges when a worker dies because of those violations," said David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former chief of the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section.

"The company involved as well as any responsible corporate officials should face felony charges that carry significant financial penalties for the company and the possibility of lengthy jail terms for the individuals," Uhlmann said. "Anything less sends a terrible message about how we value the lives of American workers."

Federal prosecutors are generally unenthusiastic about worker cases, said Jordan Barab, second-in-command at OSHA. The Justice Department "often says, 'You know, we're not going to spend all these resources just to prosecute a misdemeanor,' " Barab said.

At Justice, Uhlmann made creative use of environmental statutes to get around the OSH Act. In one case, a worker at an Idaho fertilizer plant named Scott Dominguez nearly died after being sent into a steel storage tank containing cyanide-rich sludge. Dominguez had been ordered into the 25,000-gallon tank without protective equipment by the plant's owner, Allan Elias, who had refused to test the atmosphere inside the vessel.

Dominguez collapsed and sustained brain damage from the cyanide exposure. Prosecutors charged Elias with three felony counts under environmental laws, including the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, which governs the handling and disposal of hazardous waste.

Because Elias had fabricated a confined-space entry permit indicating it was safe for workers to enter the tank, he also was charged withone count undera section ofTitle 18 of the United States Code, for making a false statement to, or otherwise conspiring to defraud, government regulators.

After a jury trial in 1999, Elias was convicted on all counts and sentenced to 17 years in prison.

Environmental statutes don't always apply in worker death or injurycases. The accident that mortally wounded Carlos Centeno, for example, appears not to have involved hazardous waste, or air or water pollution.

Charges under Title 18 remain a possibility, Uhlmann said. Nonetheless, he said, the OSH Act needs revision. Congress came close to adding felony provisions to the law in 2010 but failed amid pushback from the business community.

"Accidents are not criminal," Uhlmann said. "What are criminal are egregious violations of the worker safety laws that result in not just deaths but serious injuries."

Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat who chairs the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, is a cosponsor of the Protecting America's Workers Act, which would enhance criminal and civil penalties for OSHA violations.

"In every other walk of life, if a person engages in willful conduct that results in someone else's death, we throw the book at them," Harkin said in a statement. "But if someone dies on the job, the rules are different. Even intentional lawbreaking that kills a worker brings no more than a slap on the wrist."

Whether a bulked-up worker-protection law would have improved conditions at the Raani Corp. is a matter of speculation. According to Thomas Galassi's memo, the accident that ultimately killed Carlos Centeno merited only a one-line entry in the company's files, stating that an internal committee would investigate.

During the inspection after Centeno's death, a newly hired Raani manager asked OSHA officials to help him convince his superiors to train and provide safety gear to workers, Galassi wrote. The manager had concluded that those above him had "no respect for the hazards of the chemicals on site or human life."

This story was jointly reported by the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit investigative news outlet, and WBEZ, Chicago Public Radio.

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