Improving the effectiveness of OHS regulation in the temporary agency sector through enhanced host-s...
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Improving the effectiveness of OHS regulation in the temporary agency sector through enhanced host-supplier relationships. Dr. Elsa Underhill, Deakin University Prof. Michael Quinlan, UNSW. PDR model: Risk factors associated with Insecure and contingent work.

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Dr. Elsa Underhill, Deakin University Prof. Michael Quinlan, UNSW

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Improving the effectiveness of OHS regulation in the temporary agency sector through enhanced host-supplier relationships

Dr. Elsa Underhill, Deakin University

Prof. Michael Quinlan, UNSW

PDR model: Risk factors associated with Insecure and contingent work

Study of OHS experiences of agency workers


  • Stratified sample of injured workers

    • Investigated workers’ compensation claims in Victoria; 198 agency & direct hire matched by occupation & year of injury (1994/95–2000/01)

  • Statements from injured workers, witnesses, employers & host supervisors, medical reports

  • Focus groups and survey of agency workers

    • 147 surveyed, mostly blue collar

    • 5 Focus groups in Melbourne & regional Victoria

    • Mostly blue collar, plus call centres, health sector

Explaining the risk: economic and reward pressures

  • High levels of employment & income insecurity

    • Irregular hours (27% of injured workers) & irregular income

    • Eg. storeperson – average weekly wage A$276 but ranged from A$105 - $621 over 15 weeks

    • 45% never/rarely had continuity of placements

    • 32% different hourly wage dependent upon host

  • Interchangeable - easily & quickly replaced

    • “He asked his supervisor if he could take 2 days sick leave. The supervisor told him that if he could not come to work for 2 days [the host] would have to replace him with another worker…” (process worker, notwithstanding 6 months into a placement

Contributing to workplace risk: economic pressures

  • Work with injury

    I kept working and put up with the pain which was worse when I stopped and I didn’t mention it to anyone at the time as I was concerned my job would be terminated…I needed the money and didn’t want to attract attention by wearing a brace.” (process worker)

  • Accept work intensification

    We’ve had labour hire guys pass out, working hard…was stifling hot up there (3rd level, warehouse) …they were under the impression they wouldn’t get hours, so they went flogging themselves then they passed out (storeperson, distribution, focus group)

  • Perform more hazardous tasks

    The permanent staff here always get priority on the better shifts…certain jobs are regarded as easier than others, and the permanent and host casuals get priority on those ahead of the agency… (storeperson, distribution, focus group).

Explaining the risk: Disorganisation

  • Characteristics of agency workforce & placement

    • Younger workers (more than double direct hire but older workers injured earlier in a placement too)

    • Lack of familiarity with workplace

    • Inexperienced and/or underqualified

    • Poor person-job match

    • Fractured communication

    • Undermining of OHS management system

Disorganisation: Poor person-placement match, low/unskilled workers

  • Agencies assume unskilled tasks can be completed by anyone

    …appears the claimant is not physically suited to the work she performs…she told our investigators she has always been prone to back pain from bending and lifting… (25 year old, back injury)

  • Hosts assume agency has supplied appropriate worker

    • No time allowed for physical adjustment, for host specific training

  • Agencies incorrectly match general trade qualifications with specialised skill needs

    …I looked over and thought he looked a bit uncertain about what he was doing… (20 year old, electrocuted performing equipment maintenance

  • Pressure to fill placements quickly

  • Agency can easily dismiss & replace when inappropriate workers supplied

Disorganisation: Inadequate training

Too little…

He’s not been given any specific lifting technique training, although we have a policy of continual safety training…

When I started my only training with the pump was being shown the on/off switch and the reversing procedure…

Or irrelevant…

… the social club, history & expansion plans, other locations…etc. etc.

Insufficient knowledge to make safe decisions

Disorganisation: undermining host OHS management system

  • Lack of knowledge by agency workers

    • Eg. not knowing to report injuries

  • Exclusion from host system

    • Exclusion from workplace specific OHS training and subject to different OHS practices

    • Eg. forklift driver injured when he slipped on greasy step of a forklift.

      … Each driver is responsible for the ongoing cleanliness on a daily basis of any fork he is using. While permanent employees of the company use the same forklift each day, casuals can swap and change from one fork to another during the course of the day depending on the type of work being undertaken… (claims investigator).

Regulatory failure: culture of non-compliance

Most examples provided are also examples of lack of compliance

  • Placements involving high risk tasks

  • Lack of, poor standard of training

  • Failure to respond to OHS issues

  • Dismissal for raising issues

  • Underpinned by:

    • Vulnerability to dismissal – weak employment protection

    • Large number of small agencies & ability to avoid prosecutions

A study of options for improving compliance within constraints of existing legislation

  • 11 focus groups, metro & regional Qld

  • 5 of hosts, 6 of temporary agency employers

  • 3 semi-structured interviews with union officials

  • 62 participants

  • Construction, manufacturing, distribution / warehousing, health services, mining, mineral processing, pastoral & agriculture

  • What works to safeguard the OHS of temporary agency workers?

  • What measures would improve their safe placement?

  • How can regulatory agencies enhance their activities to secure safe placement?

  • Emphasis upon improving existing practices

What works to safeguard the OHS of agency workers? Large agencies & hosts

  • Strategic & comprehensive approach to placements & OHS

    • Advanced planning of placements

    • Avoidance of short-notice placements

    • Avoidance of high risk placements

    • Risk Assessments performed by OHS qualified staff

  • Long term relationships between hosts & agencies

    • Enhanced understanding of placement requirements

    • Better access to host workplaces

    • Better communication

  • Hosts promoted better practices amongst agencies (esp. regional areas)

What works to safeguard the OHS of agency workers?

  • I invite the agency out for a tour of the factory so that they can understand what I need in a work…they get to see the whole factory operating under normal circumstances…and then they can select more suitable candidates

  • Like a partnership. They’re not just supplying a service; they’re actually involved with the ongoing function of the workers in the workplace…

  • Butproblems remain re:

    • Hosts moving workers without prior notice

    • Risk assessments

    • Agency labour turnover

    • Agency reward / incentive systems

  • What works to safeguard the OHS of agency workers? Small niche suppliers

    • Specialised by occupation (but not necessarily specialised skills)

    • Better understanding of host needs

    • Better communication

    • Better understanding of specialised staff needs

    • Longer term relationships with their employees

    What works to safeguard the OHS of agency workers? Problem groups….

    The “don’ t care” small suppliers & hosts

    • No background, no knowledge

      I don’t think it is an ambiguity around what they’re reading. They’re just not reading. There is no exposure to it.

    • Calculated avoidance

      Send us the fittest of your fittest, young blokes that aren’t broken. And when we finish with them, and they’ve got problems later in life, they’ll be some else’s issue

    • Ease of establishing operations & ability to respond to host requests at short notice

    • Hosts can always find an agency willing to supply on these terms

    Other facilitators & barriers


    • Pre-placement risk assessments, job safety analysis

      • But concerns re competence for on-going monitoring & assessment

    • Regular interaction & worksite visits, extending to involvement in host OHS committees

      • But interaction with workers potentially impeded by hosts’ attitudes towards workers


    • Insufficient information regarding placements supplied by hosts

      • It’s easy enough to get the qualifications, formal qualifications & licensing but it’s far more difficult if you’ve got to be thinking in terms of what kinds of experience does the person have to have had to be able to do that work?

    • Growth of ‘hold harmless’ clauses (agency accepts host’s costs of injuries)

    • Less stable work environments eg. construction, home care

    How can regulatory agencies enhance their activities to secure safe placement ?

    • Registration/licensing for temporary employment agencies

      • Minimum requirements eg. All agency staff involved in placements hold OHS qualifications

      • Mechanism for provision of information by regulators – checklists etc.

      • Mechanism for information/education, and prosecution purposes

    • Develop check lists for use in selecting hosts/agencies

    • Promote more strategic approach by agencies & hosts

      • Encourage planning; stronger relationships between agencies & hosts etc.

    How can regulatory agencies enhance their activities to secure safe placement ?

    • Encourage inspectorate to identify whether TAW present during all site visits & assess adequacy of arrangements

    • Prosecute for breaches of processes, irrespective of injuries

      • Eg. not conducting risk assessments; moving placed workers to new tasks without advising agency or undertaking risk assessment; hosts not providing adequate detail in job specifications

    • Targeted campaigns – information, education followed by audit program & then prosecutions (by region & by industry)

      • ‘safe’ niche suppliers show small does not have to be high risk

    • Prohibit hold harmless clauses


    • Long-term relationships between agencies and hosts have clear OHS benefits

    • Questions to be resolved?

      • Is long term planning consistent with agency work?

      • Can intense competition between agencies be overcome by means other than regulation?

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