How dangerous are unmanaged temp staff?

John Salisbury talks about the increased health and safety dangers

Workers need to be trained by their agencies.
Workers need to be trained by their agencies.

John Salisbury, managing director of UK-based de Poel, talks about the increased health and safety dangers if temporary staff are not managed correctly.

As more construction firms look to hire temporary agency labour, industry experts fear health and safety could take a back seat.

While a mixture of unregulated supplying recruitment agencies may increase the likelihood of corner-cutting on worker checks, inductions and training, a lack of responsibility for temporary agency employees might exclude the temporary workforce from health and safety participation.

The concern is that as well as impacting on the number of accidents, weak health and safety schemes, could expose construction firms to expensive litigation claims.

But companies continue to ask how is health and safety being neglected? And how can it be improved? The ‘unmanaged’ supply of temporary labour is proving detrimental to organisations and managing labour supply is one of the most crucial steps in improving health and safety.

In the last 25 years, over 2800 people have died from injuries linked to construction work. Many more have become ill or been injured, making health and safety a pressing issue for construction firms.

But as companies begin to grapple with their individual health and safety policies, those who employ an unmanaged supply of temporary agency workers risk stumbling into dangerous territory.

Not only does it become difficult to establish where an agency’s responsibility ends and where their responsibility starts, but a typical lack of formal business terms and agency regulation continues to provide opportunities for recruiters to side-step the law.

Meanwhile, in the absence of timesheet recording systems, it can be difficult to keep track of on-site accidents, reducing incident reporting. The good news is that by taking a managed approach to temporary agency supply, these problems can be overcome.

One of the most vital steps in ensuring health and safety at your construction site is to make certain that all construction workers supplied through an agency are fit for the job.

The agency has the responsibility here, they need to obtain information as regards the worker’s identity, previous experience, training and qualifications which may expose whether a candidate is suitable and whether further training is required.

For example, a candidate’s age may affect whether they can operate or clean dangerous machinery and a candidate’s qualifications may affect whether they can work in a skilled position.

It is also up to the agency to relay information about the job, the employer and the health and safety risks to the worker-seeker, equally important as a means of ensuring health and safety in allowing the worker to provide further information about themselves which may affect their ability to do the job.

If the agency is understood to be the employer, they may need to make a site visit and carry out their own risk assessment.

They will need to control and eliminate risks to health and safety specifically, which may mean having to organise medical and fitness assessments when hiring candidates for safety-critical jobs such as crane operation or jobs involving asbestos or radiation.

The problem with an unmanaged supply of temporary agency labour is that there are rarely any formal business terms in place, putting agencies in a good position to worm their way out of responsibility for health and safety and allowing them to pass all ‘employer’ duties to construction firm.

Moreover, a significant lack of industry regulation means even where agencies do have a legal responsibility, say, to obtain all the information about a potential worker, unscrupulous recruiters are likely to risk flouting the law if it means cutting costs (making the risks even greater during a recession when budgets are tight).

To overcome this problem, construction firms need to take control of the recruitment process and implement contracts that clarify agency responsibility and cover them should agencies breach them.

As hirers, all recruitment agencies are required to provide workers with the correct information as regards the training needs of the job they are being assigned to and any special occupational skills they need to do the job safely.

If they are considered to be employers, they will also have a joint legal duty with the construction firm to make certain that health and safety training and inductions are actually carried out.

Additionally, they will be obligated to ensure safe systems of work are set and followed, and that substances and equipment are used safely, by providing access to training and inductions for specific types of work, both under general health and safety laws as well as more specific regulations.

In such cases where agencies are responsible for ensuring training and inductions are carried out, they will also need to check up on standards.

For example, proper inductions will need to identify potential hazards, inform workers of the rules surrounding safety-critical jobs and make them aware of restricted areas, special authorisation to do work and particular rules when working in certain weather conditions.

They will also need to clarify company policies on uniform, waste management, smoking, drinking, medication and listening to music. Irrespective of whether the agency is the employer, they will additionally need to check workers have understood and are continuing to follow correct procedures.

Even if agencies are not the employers, it is good practice for them to work collaboratively with the employer on training and inductions.

Where construction firms use a large number of agencies under informal agreements, fail to keep tabs on ongoing agency performance or wrongly assume that it is the agency’s responsibility to organise training when it is their own, (all of which are the results of having an unmanaged supply of agency workers), it is possible for training and inductions to be missed.

This is particularly likely when agency staff are employed for temporary placements, the short-term nature of assignments inducing corner-cutting among rogue and unregulated recruiters who feel that temporary placements do not justify long-winded induction and training programmes.

To prevent this from happening, construction firms should consider working with a ‘panel’ of reputable agency suppliers or a preferred supplier list of top quality agencies.

Not only does this eliminate poor quality suppliers, but it puts your firm in a better position to implement standards for service, and to monitor agency performance. It will also improve your relations with suppliers for more collaborative working, and give you piece of mind that your company is complying with health and safety laws.

In a recent inquiry into the underlying causes of fatalities at construction sites, the author recognised the need for a ‘bottom-up safety culture’ or more worker participation, if health and safety on construction sites is to improve. Indeed, according to the Health and Safety Executive, workers are more likely to work in a safe and healthy way if they have been involved in making decisions about how risks at work are controlled.

The fact remains that for construction firms employing temporary agency workers, there is very limited worker participation. Quite possibly this is because unregulated agencies seek to avoid the process.

There is also a chance that temporary agency workers are more likely to be vulnerable workers, such as migrants who may not speak English as their first language, young or old people, requiring more effort on the part of the agency, unlikely when agencies are unmanaged.

Another reason is a lack of responsibility for the temporary workers, where neither the agency nor the client ‘claims’ the worker as their own employee, and health and safety is forgotten about.

For construction companies, one of the best ways to encourage more worker participation when temporary agency workers are employed is to firmly establish agency responsibilities in this area. This can only be done by implementing formal, service level agreements and distributing them to agencies within a managed panel of suppliers. Agency efforts can be measured over time by including key performance indicators in the agreements.

Reporting not only helps to identify where and how risks arise, but it facilitates the investigation of serious accidents and allows for the development of policies to improve health and safety in the future. Reportable incidents include work-related deaths, major injuries, over-three day injuries, work-related diseases and dangerous occurrences or near-miss accidents.

The problem with an unmanaged and unregulated mix of agency suppliers is that there is unlikely to be any system in place for reporting where workers have been allocated and for how long. Where a large number of temporary agency workers are employed across a number of different depots, this lack of visibility of what kinds of workers are employed at which sites can prohibit the reporting of incidents, leading to an inaccurate picture of
accident hotspots.

For companies looking to improve accident reporting, a managed supply of workers with access to an electronic timesheet and invoice-processing systems is both effective and efficient. Providing a clear view of where, when and in what jobs incidents are most likely to occur, they reveal areas where more training might be needed.

About John Salisbury
John Salisbury is the managing director of de Poel. He plays an integral role in cultivating relationships with recruitment agencies, raising the level of agency support, in line with the company’s long term client focused strategy.

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