According the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, job recovery continues to sputter at a relatively slow and unpredictable pace in most sectors. Construction employment has increased by 123,000 jobs since March 2003, but has unfortunately experienced a decline of 24,000 jobs in February. Since August 2003, job losses in the manufacturing sector averaged 16,000 a month, which is good, when compared to an average loss of 62,000 per month for the first 8 months of 2003. Even the financial activities sector has seen a net job loss. This sector added 4,000 jobs in February 2004 only to be offset by a loss in credit intermediation (which includes mortgage banking) of 22,000 jobs since August 2003.

Private education and health services employment has seen little change in employment this year, but has realized an increase by 291,000 jobs over the past 12 months. Within government, the state governments added 20,000 jobs in February, largely in state education. Lastly, employment in the temporary help sector rose by 32,000 jobs over the month after a small loss in January. Since April 2003, the temporary help industry has out produced nearly every other sector by adding 215,000 jobs.

According to a recent paper released by the center for Urban Economic Development in Chicago, "temporary employment has assumed a unique position in the U.S. economy, operating as a buffer during cyclical swings in the wider economy and contributing to the dynamism of the economy through the enhancement of short-term labor market flexibility. Over the course of the last 30 years, temporary employment has expanded rapidly prior to macroeconomic upturns, while sharp declines in temporary employment have led the economy into recessions, a pattern that was most pronounced during the mid-1980s recovery and early 1990s recession."1

There is no doubt that the temporary help sector is a significant indicator for job growth. Researchers for the National Bureau of Economic Research have found that the rise in the proportion of temporary workers in the economy is attributable to a conscious decision by employers to hire more temporary help, rather than to a shift in employment from temp-light to temp-heavy industries. The hiring of more temps enable firms to implement a two-tier wage structure; they may contract with temp agencies that pay less for workers doing similar work to that of regular workers, thereby lowering overall wage costs.

The continued reliance on temporary workers has raised a number of questions on who is responsible for the overhead costs associated with temporary worker health and safety. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration's (OSHA) answer to this is fairly straightforward. OSHA has determined the "work establishment" as having the ultimate responsibility for worker safety. Under section 1904.46 Definitions, "an establishment is a single physical location where business is conducted or where services or industrial operations are performed." Injuries and illnesses for all covered employees at the establishment are tracked on a single reporting form called the OSHA Form 300 Log. This means, no matter the status of the employee (temporary help, part-time, volunteer, or full-time), the establishment or company that owns the physical property is responsible for tracking the injuries and illnesses and therefore, is liable for the risks associated with an unsafe workplace and work practices.

In an effort to capitalize on the temporary work help trend, it has become common practice for many companies to negotiate into the temporary work contract certain safety expectations to be provided to the workers from the agencies. For example, some companies assume items such as training, medical monitoring, personal protective equipment and drug-testing are the responsibility of the temporary staffing agencies. In some cases this makes sense, after all, a temporary staffing agency should be able to follow drug-testing protocols and maybe even ensure certain medical pre-testing is completed. However, when it comes to safety training, is it really feasible for temporary staffing agencies to adequately train employees to company specific safety practices?

Consider that for all the talk on increases in productivity in the U.S., temporary workers are not captured within the manufacturing sector; however, they do become a part of the injury rate calculations for workers' compensation premiums and OSHA injury rate triggers. A word of warning: Cautiously approach the safety aspect of the temporary work environment. The short-term cost savings gained from delegating safety responsibility to the temporary agency could backfire in the long-run. IH 1Mehta, Chirag and Theodore, Nik "The Temporary Staffing Industry and U.S. Labor Markets: Implications for the Unemployment Insurance System." America's Workforce Network Research Conference, Washington, D.C., June 25-26, 2001.