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February 18, 2020

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MSP Programs: Workplace Safety for Labor Compliance

Safety is a safe bet in the workplace

Anyone following the labor policies of the Obama administration knows that workplace safety has been a priority. The president’s commitment to reform and expand Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) protections has resulted in new regulations that increase the wellbeing of workers across the board. And the case against Don Blankenship, a West Virginia coal baron and former CEO of Massey Energy, demonstrates just how seriously the nation is taking issues of occupational safety and health. In fact, the trial is widely viewed as the first time a chief executive of a major corporation has faced criminal charges over workplace safety concerns.

In April 2010, 29 miners were killed when an explosion tore through the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia. High methane levels erupted into a coal dust explosion about 1,000 feet underground. Investigators attributed the cause of the gas buildup to faulty ventilation systems. However, the same team also discovered countless other violations of state and federal safety standards, which were disclosed in the criminal indictment against Blankenship.

Last November, a federal grand jury indicted Blankenship for conspiring to commit safety violations, cover up those violations, and then provide false statements about Massey’s safety record. Other allegations followed, such as statements about company officials threatening to fire employees who refused to work in areas without adequate oxygen. Blankenship’s trial began this October. By December 3, the jury delivered a guilty verdict on the count of conspiring to violate mine safety standards.

One of the major topics the staffing industry will discuss throughout 2016 is changing and expanding regulations for labor compliance, health and safety. For MSP program managers who oversee large pools of diverse talent, taking a thoughtful and preventative approach makes a difference. Let’s take a look at those issues and the ways we can protect our talent from hazards of all types.

Occupational safety for all occupations

Under current policies, OSHA requires companies to extend safety programs to contingent talent on assignment at their sites. By failing to do so, such businesses — even though they’re not the employers of record for contingent workers — could incur significant liability in cases involving safety incidents. Beyond that, OSHA is also actively encouraging workers to report violations through a system that maintains their confidentiality.

To remain compliant, even a comprehensive onboarding program alone can’t solve the problem. In reality, reading from an OSHA questionnaire and showing a tired old safety video from the 1980s no longer cuts the mustard. Even comprehensive safety training can’t address every concern or potential hazard. Those MSPs who take the additional step of identifying risks and working with staffing partners and clients to provide the proper equipment not only protect their talent, they also protect their clients’ businesses.

As DCR Workforce astutely observes: “Contingent workers need more protection based on how OSHA finds them suddenly being thrown in at the deep end of the pool as they report to work — to work with hazardous materials without the benefit of any training or personal protection equipment — when they are brought on board with pressing production targets due to seasonal spikes in demand or to replace absent workers.” And exposure to hazardous materials, not merely precarious physical environments, is also a component of OSHA policies.

The most reported threats to OSHA, as DCR also illustrates, are varied. They include protruding sharp edges on office equipment, unprotected electrical sources, confined spaces that limit movement between people and machines, uneven or obstructed walking surfaces, high-temperature sources that could cause burns, falling objects, flying sparks from equipment, exposure to toxic substances or biohazards, high intensity or radiation-based lighting, high levels of noise and more.

Addressing workplace safety threats

Many of the dangers workers encounter on the job come from seemingly innocuous sources. Yet, they’re easily preventable. MSP program managers can capitalize on the discovery phases of implementation — where office requirements and accommodations are scrutinized — to record and help correct looming safety concerns. Having supervisors and managers canvas the facility with MSP teams to document possible risks is a strong way to rectify matters before they escalate. Encouraging workers to report perceived violations without fear of repercussion is an excellent way to maintain safety. Simple fixes could include:

  • Arranging work spaces to facilitate ease of mobility and avoid slips or falls.
  • Addressing exposed wiring.
  • Placing items in easy to reach places where they aren’t likely to fall or cause injury.
  • Packing containers lightly to prevent strain on workers who must lift them.
  • Using ergonomic chairs, keyboards, phones and other equipment to eliminate long-term physical distress.
  • Ensuring that the office is fire-proofed and that hazardous chemicals — even toner for the copier — is stored away safely.
  • Maintaining a handbook of safety guidelines and updating it regularly. This could include fire escape plans, safety protocols for natural disasters, reporting and communication policies, and more. It’s also important to host training sessions and drills.

More complex issues, such as those necessitating the use of protective gear, require more creative solutions. DCR offers some best practices:

  • Special industrial equipment protects against impact, penetration, compression, chemical, heat/cold, harmful dust, light (optical) radiation, and biologic hazards.
  • All the protective gear should be certified as a safe design (to meet the standards set by ANSI or the American National Standards Institute), maintained well, offer a good fit in size and be compatible with each other.
  • Employees must be trained to know when to wear protective gear, decide what gear is necessary and how to put it on, take it off and adjust it to their needs.

Depending on the environment, the nature of the work and the equipment used, talent may need protective clothing or devices for different parts of their bodies: eyes, face, head and neck, feet and legs, hands and arms, full body suits and even hearing protection against harmful levels of noise. The challenge lies in how to approach and fund the protective equipment. It’s not uncommon to require contingent talent to purchase their own gear. However, a lot of workers can’t afford the equipment and may not be reimbursed for their expenditures. The secret to creating the healthiest and most productive program involves communication, collaboration and partnership between MSPs, staffing partners and client managers.

  • MSPs should team up with client managers during the initial stages of program implementation to ascertain all environmental and mechanical risks at the site, and then jointly determine the equipment requirements that will ensure a safe working arrangement for talent.
  • MSP program managers should meet with their selected staffing partners to discuss these issues.
  • As a group, every participant in the program should gather to decide on how the equipment will be procured and how the costs will be delegated or divided. Once an amenable process is confirmed, it should be drafted as a provision in the services agreement.
  • An even stronger option for MSP program managers is to include safety issues in Service Level Agreements (SLAs) for supplier partners.
  • If the talent will be required to front the costs of safety gear in any capacity, this should be communicated to candidates upfront during the recruiting process. It shouldn’t come as a surprise on their first day of work.
  • And of course, a robust safety training program must be a critical element of the onboarding process — specific to the site and its risks, and that also includes instruction on the proper usage of the equipment needed. In fact, OSHA happily offers free assistance and advice on combating workplace hazards.

Safety is everybody’s business

Whether through recklessness, carelessness or avarice, putting our talent at risk serves no purpose. Their safety should be as precious to us as their skills and abilities. The workers of this nation deserve supportive environments. They deserve better than employers like Don Blankenship. And as staffing professionals who are invested in people, we can do better.

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