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Feb 16 2008

Companies keep spotless ratings even if poorly trained temps are injured or killed

Board shields unsafe job sites

"Workplace safety rules allow companies to keep spotless ratings even if poorly trained temps are injured or killed . . . Ontario companies that use an army of temporary workers are hiding a dirty secret behind their glowing safety records."

Working wounded

The Star is investigating workplace illness and injuries in Ontario. The probe began with a lengthy freedom of information request for workers' compensation data that identifies safety issues in companies and government agencies. The Star's Andrew Bailey analyzed the data.

The first story in the series detailed the high rate of post-traumatic stress disorder among Toronto Transit Commission drivers.

Workplace safety rules allow companies to keep spotless ratings even if poorly trained temps are injured or killed
Moira Welsh
Staff Reporter

Ontario companies that use an army of temporary workers are hiding a dirty secret behind their glowing safety records.

That's because the province's worker insurance program protects the company job sites where accidents occur, yet gives big financial penalties to the temporary agency that sent the worker to the job.

A loophole in the rules of the province's Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) system is to blame.

As a result, companies that use a lot of temporary workers have no incentive to clean up their act because their "experience rating" – a financial calculation based on a company's health and safety record – is not affected when a temp is hurt. Depending on company size, the firm can escape hundreds-of-thousands- or millions-of-dollars in annual payments.

The situation is "fundamentally wrong," said WSIB chair Steve Mahoney, after the Toronto Star presented the results of its investigation. "To allow a company that is using temp agencies to simply skip the responsibility for safety is not in the interest of the workers and that is our main focus."

Mahoney will ask the provincial labour ministry to fix the problem, which would require a change to legislation. The impact, if a change is made, will be significant. One in five workers in Ontario is a temp, employed by one of the 1,300 or more agencies in the province that use them.

Cases uncovered by the Star as part of an ongoing investigation into worker safety reveal factories, retail shipping firms, and other companies that did not train a temporary worker properly or take safety precautions, leading to severe injuries, crushed bodies, broken bones and, sometimes, death.

"I've seen companies get great safety ratings when we know that temps are injured there all the time," said Suzanne McInerney, a vice-president at Staffing Edge, one of the largest temporary work firms in Ontario. Her firm, and others, want the province to pass legislation that would make injuries the shared responsibility with the places people work – not just the company that places them in the job.

Robert Sager agrees.

A runaway forklift crushed the 53-year-old Milton man in July 2005. He had been sent by temporary agency Kelly Services to an Exel Canada distribution plant for the $9 an hour job. Exel rushed him through training and he was put to work immediately at a Brantford warehouse.

"I felt pressured because at that point in time I really needed a job," Sager said.

A few minutes into his second shift, the forklift he was driving accelerated backwards, threw him out and pinned him against a steel rack.

"I remember thinking `Oh God, I'm dead.' I tried to call out for help and I could hardly get it out of my voice. I remember hearing someone say `Sager, are you all right?' and then I blacked out."

They discovered the extent of the damage at the hospital: a crushed pelvis, a torn urethra, ripped vertebrae, ruptured bowel, crushed kidneys, a head injury and testicles swollen tight with blood. He had three heart attacks immediately after the accident.

Two-and-a-half years later, the damage remains. He can barely walk, has memory loss, and needs help with everything from bathing to using the toilet. A nurse comes daily to change a dressing in his chest.

Under current rules, Kelly Services would face a hike in its annual workplace insurance payments, not Exel. However, neither firm would provide details of their case to the Star.

The Ministry of Labour investigated and laid charges; Exel pleaded guilty to failing to ensure that Sager was sufficiently experienced and was fined $80,000 under the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Kelly Services is contesting safety act charges that it did not properly prepare Sager for the job.

The fine for Exel was a one-time payout that does not affect the company's WSIB safety rating. A serious injury like Sager's, with ensuing medical costs over many years, would significantly raise a company's annual payments.

To better understand the WSIB, here is how the system works.

Ontario's workers' compensation system began in 1915, when workers gave up the right to sue companies in return for long-term compensation in a no-fault insurance program paid for by employers.

In Ontario, most companies pay into a worker insurance system to cover medical, salary and retraining costs for injured workers.

Each company pays the WSIB an annual insurance premium depending on the type of work. A mining company pays more than a white-collar office because miners are more often injured, and the injuries are more serious.

How safe a company is relative to other similar companies helps them save money. A good "experience rating" means they pay less; a bad rating they pay more. A company that pays an annual WSIB premium of $5 million could either save $1 million or pay an additional $1 million, depending on its record.

Worker advocates say that the policy behind the loophole needs to be changed.

"It is outrageous that this situation even exists," said Wayne Samuelson, president of the Ontario Federation of Labour.

"If a company wants to avoid getting on the radar of the labour ministry, they can just offload their accidents onto the temp agency ... that way their record gets attached to the agency."

WSIB data released to the Star does not differentiate temp companies from firms that hire salaried employees, so it is impossible to tell how many temp workers report injuries each year. However, by looking at 200 known temporary firms in the data, we spotted a 32 per cent increase in injuries, from 5,345 in 2001 to 7,075 in 2005, the most recent information available. Industry experts say that's only the tip of the iceberg.

What pains those who run staffing agencies is that the WSIB has no way of identifying companies where temp workers are frequently injured.

"It doesn't even go on their record," said Linda Ford, president of Temporary Measures. "Even if we put their name down when we file our paperwork, the WSIB does not have a way of recording it, so there is nothing to red flag the companies for their safety record."

McInerney, of Staffing Edge, said some companies give temp workers the most strenuous jobs, without proper training.

"Companies push off those jobs to the staffing companies because they know there will be accidents and therefore their safety rate is kept clean and ours is not," she said.

As a result, temp agencies typically pay double the premiums compared to companies that do the same work, McInerney said.

In 2006, the WSIB launched what it called its "boldest social marketing" campaign ever in a bid to one day reduce workplace fatalities and injuries to zero.

Staffing Edge president Lou Duggan saw an opening and wrote to WSIB chair Mahoney last year, asking for him to fix the temporary worker issue.

"We feel that lost time injuries should not only reflect the staffing firm's frequency of injuries but should as well target the client site locations where the injuries occurred," Duggan wrote.

"Instilling a greater accountability for (lost time injuries) on the client site is the key. This change would engage the management at workplaces and support your goal for a safer work environment."

Duggan received a reply from the WSIB saying the issue would be studied, but nothing changed.

Yesterday, board chair Mahoney said in an interview that he would meet with the provincial labour ministry in two weeks and propose a change to legislation that would close the loophole.

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