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Nonstandard Work Arrangements

Posted on by John Howard, MD

Who is looking out for workers in nonstandard work arrangements? As the prevalence of nonstandard work arrangements (such as temporary agency, contract, and “gig” arrangements) rises, so do concerns about workplace safety and health among this workforce. A recent article, “Nonstandard work arrangements and worker health and safety” published in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine describes the major standard and nonstandard work arrangements and the potential managerial, legal, and health and safety challenges associated with nonstandard arrangements. Key points are highlighted below.



In the late 20th century, many firms shifted from the traditional employer–employee relationship toward increasing reliance on nonstandard work arrangements, shifting much of the risk of doing business on the worker [Cappelli, 1999; Karoly and Panis, 2004; Cappelli and Keller, 2012]. This move toward enhanced labor market flexibility has aided firms economically [Ono, 2009], but has also launched a debate about whether this trend has hurt workers, particularly low-wage workers [Hatton, 2013; Weil, 2014; Hill, 2015].

Nonstandard workers are referred to by different names—temporary help, contingent, part-time, on-call, direct hire, agency, contract, app-based, on-demand, free-lancer, and gig workers (those whose work intermediated by a digital online platform) [General Accountability Office (GAO), 2006]. The unifying feature shared by workers involved in nonstandard work arrangements is that they have no expectation of permanence, even if the work is performed well [Stone, 2004]. Independent contractors do not have a legal right to a safe workplace and are not legally eligible for workers’ compensation benefits if they are injured on the job [Berkowitz and Smith, 2016]. Some gig workers do not earn the minimum wage.

An accurate count of the size of the nonstandard workforce is difficult to obtain because of the heterogeneous nature of nonstandard work arrangements and the absence of a “standard” definition of “nonstandard” work [Kalleberg, 2000; Bernhardt, 2014]. In 2005, the last year in which BLS conducted a Contingent Worker Supplement, contingent workers and workers in alternative arrangements together represented a range from 12.5% to 14.8% of total employment [BLS, 2005]. In 2015, the GAO reported in a letter to Senators Murray and Gillibrand that “the size of the contingent workforce can range from less than 5 percent to more than a third of total employed labor force, depending on widely-varying definitions of contingent work” [GAO, 2015]. GAO then estimated that “a core group of contingent workers, such as agency temps and on-call workers, comprised about 7.9 percent of the employed labor force in 2010” [GAO, 2015].

A 2013 study by researchers from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) reported 18.7% of adults work in nonstandard arrangements (i.e., largely jobs that were “temporary”) [Alterman et al., 2013]. A 2015 RAND-Princeton Contingent Work Survey reported that the percentage of workers engaged in alternative work arrangements (as defined by BLS) increased from 10.1% to 15.8% in 2015 [Katz and Krueger, 2016]. In sum, estimates of the nonstandard workforce range from around 8% to 18% of the total workforce.

The proportion of the total workforce represented by the gig workforce remains very small. Workers who provide services through online intermediaries make up less than one percent of the workforce according to the few studies to date of the gig workforce [Dooko et al., 2015; Lehmann, 2015; Katz and Krueger, 2016].


Legal Issues

A significant challenge facing nonstandard arrangement workers and their job providers involves determining which entity, if any, is responsible for providing various job protections to these workers. Two questions often arise. First, is a nonstandard worker an employee or an independent contractor? Employers often label workers as independent but increasingly those labels are being challenged. Second, when a worker is hired by one employer—often a staffing agency—when is the host employer jointly responsible with the staffing agency for ensuring compliance with labor and employment laws? Each law establishing labor standards relies upon a different test for who is an employer of an employee. As a result, an employer may be responsible for safety and health compliance and paying wages for a group of nonstandard workers, even if that employer is not responsible for providing health insurance or pension benefits to those workers [Dau-Schmidt and Ray, 2004]. (See article for specific court cases.)

The misclassification of employees as independent contractors has grown into such a prevalent practice, denying workers critical protections and legal benefits, that the U.S. Department of Labor launched a “DOL Misclassification Initiative,” partnering with 31 states and the Internal Revenue Service to get workers the wages, benefits and protections to which they are entitled as employees [U.S. Department of Labor, 2015]. Denying injured workers coverage under state workers’ compensation insurance can lead to financial ruin for the worker and his or her family, and transfer the costs of injury care to the public when it should be borne by the employer or job provider [Berkowitz and Smith, 2016].


Occupational Safety and Health Issues

In the past 20 years, studies have demonstrated the existence of differential health risks between workers and nonstandard work arrangements. Why these differential risks occur are not entirely clear. Workers in nonstandard arrangements may bear more injury risk because they are assigned more hazardous work and are reluctant to object [Rousseau and Libuser, 1997; Thebaud-Mony, 1999; Boden et al., 2016]. They may lack sufficient general or site-specific safety training [Kochan et al., 1994; Aronson, 1999; Occupational Safety and Health Administration, 2015], or lack access to appropriate personal protective equipment to do the job assigned them without risk of injury or death [Cummings and Kreiss, 2008]. Confusion may exist in part-time, agency, contract, and gig work arrangements, over who exactly bears the responsibility for various aspects of workplace safety [National Institute for Safety and Health, 2015].

Studies of work-related injuries revel higher injury rates among agency workers than standard workers.

  • Hospital agency nurses in the healthcare industry had higher rates of sharps injuries than their standard co-workers [Aiken et al., 1997];
  • agency workers in the petrochemical industry had higher rates of injury, especially when they were engaged in maintenance and turnaround procedures [Rebitzer 1995]; and
  • agency workers had twice the injury rate than standard co-workers in plastics manufacturing industry [Morris, 1999].

In 2005, a systematic review of international, peer-reviewed studies revealed that 7 of 13 reports showed an increased risk of work-related injuries among contingent workers [Virtanen et al., 2005]. In 2006, study of agency and contract workers reported that nonstandard workers had two times the rate of fatal and nonfatal work-related injuries than standard workers [Benavides et al., 2006]. In 2010, a Washington State study of the workers’ compensation claims rate for agency workers found their rate to be double those of standard workers [Smith et al., 2010].

Illness outcomes were found greater in workers in nonstandard arrangements [Benach et al., 2004; Virtanen et al., 2005]. Increased illness morbidity may be related to the lack of paid sick leave benefits for nonstandard workers. Working while sick can increase the risk of injury. Workers with paid sick leave benefits were 28% less likely than workers without access to paid sick leave to sustain a work-related injury [Asfaw et al., 2012].

Safety managers face challenges with a blended workforce of standard and nonstandard workers. Temporary and permanent employees may differ in the training they receive for the job, the protective equipment they are provided, the dangers associated with the tasks they are assigned, and their perception of safety practices [Zohar and Luria, 2005]. See the joint NIOSH/OSHA Recommended Practices for Protecting Temporary Workers.


Next Steps

Steps must be taken to identify the health and safety risks to workers associated with nonstandard work arrangements and develop interventions to mitigate or eliminate those risks. Better definitional clarity is needed to distinguish the standard arrangements from the increasing varieties of nonstandard work arrangements [Bernhardt, 2014; Benach et al., 2016]. Regular, government-based surveillance of the size of the workforce engaged in the various nonstandard work arrangements is also vital to accurately gauge potential health effects. Improved surveillance would also support design of prospective studies of the health effects from nonstandard arrangement as well as lead to effectiveness studies of regulatory, policy, and health and safety interventions [Boden et al., 2016]. The development, evaluation, and validation of tools to measure physical and social exposure variables found in nonstandard arrangements need to be done [Vives et al., 2010, 2015; Benach et al., 2012]. Also needed are health outcome studies and interventions that can prevent work-related and worker injury, illness, and fatalities across the spectrum of work arrangements [Sauter et al., 2002).

In the Third Decade of NORA (2016–2026), NIOSH will convene partners from organizational science, epidemiology, occupational psychology, economics, sociology, law, management, labor health and safety, and worker advocacy to explore models for healthy work design and worker well-being, continuing to address the ever-shifting challenges workers face as they navigate the global economy.

We welcome your ideas on how to best protect nonstandard workers.

John Howard, MD, Director, National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health




Posted on by John Howard, MD

15 comments on “Nonstandard Work Arrangements”

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    Considerations must be aligned to consideration related to those workers considered as “Vulnerable Workers”. In reality the Health & Safety of “All” workers must be equal. Those workers that have limited experience, knowledge and skill must be “assessed” relative to their level of risk; direct & indirect. Workplace parties have to recognize the reality and come to terms with the evolving workplace environment.
    How do workplaces that look to build a robust H&S Culture take these factors into account?

    Thank you for your comments, Dan. The evolving work environment, including workers in different employment arrangements at the same workplace or members of the same production team, does pose challenges for safety and health professionals in building a strong safety culture.

    Temporary Staffing Agencies, should be responsible for equipping workers with basic 101 safety training for the industry. Perhaps they could offer web based or classroom OSHA Safety training and offer minimum wage for these basic training and assessments before workers are assigned to various labor sites. For example, clerical and administrative staff are required to taking screening exams before they are able to be assigned to various companies. Employers shouldn’t be able to opt out of safety compliance, if they are partnering with staffing agencies for hiring, the safety responsibility should be shifted as well.

    Knesha, thank you for your comments. Ensuring the safety of workers across various work arrangements is a worthy goal.

    Dr. Howard – from my experience as a temp worker, and now as a member of the NIOSH NORA Service Sector Council, I would like to draw your attention to a serious issue within the temporary staffing industry compounding the safety & health crisis.

    Despite the industry’s alliance with OSHA, the American Staffing Association has NEVER publicly admitted that temp workers are at greater risk of injury or death, and NEVER privately admitted it to its member organizations. The denial limits meaningful action from both staffing agencies and host employers. Many staffing agencies believe that:

    “Publicity over injuries implies that temporary workers are injured disproportionately, which has not been established,” and
    “it’s just a few, small, bad actors who are responsible.”

    We need to pressure the industry to accept the work of the safety & health research community, because as we all know, “the first step in solving a problem is recognizing there is one.”

    Thanks for your comments. We all need to work together to ensure that all workers—standard employees, workers with dual employers, contractors and gig workers—enjoy the same safety and health protections.

    Dr. Howard thank you for opening this discussion. I have an example that illustrates the direction taken in another jurisdiction. We have many incidents among miners when they travel to and from work presumably due to fatigue. Australia charges companies with an incident from the time workers leave their front door which forces companies to look for solutions instead of passing liability to others.
    Similarly if incident statistics were registered by work site owner rather than by employer, a more proactive workplace would be created.

    Dan, Thanks for your comment. Your example illustrates how the employer of record may not be in the best position to reduce the risk. Thanks for your interest in the emerging area of health and safety aspects of nonstandard work arrangements.

    As a recent graduate of an Occupational Health Nursing MSN program, I was keenly aware of not only the wide range of potential hazards in the workplace but also the growing concern of the safety for temporary workers. As a temporary/contingent Occupational Health Nurse, I went into the industry with my eyes and research mind wide open.

    While initially being offered no safety training from my staffing agency, I made several request for training and was given generic written training. In my experience, it was apparent to me that staffing agencies are not prepared to offer adequate safety training. They are not aware of the specific hazards at each site nor of the potential hazards in general and therefore can not meet the needs of the workers they are placing in the host site. The host site however is aware and has developed training to provide for their employees. If this same training was required to be given to all workers with the same potential exposures/hazards, could the rate of injury be reduced? Place the financial burden of this training on both the host and the agency while adequately training all workers.

    One avenue I think is vitally important to study is related to the safety training of standard and non standard workers. In a workplace where the injury rate of nonstandard workers is significantly higher, would the rate of injury decrease if equal safety training was given to standard and non standard workers?

    If there was equal training for all workers, I believe this would lend to the safety culture of a worksite. If I were on a worksite I would want all of those around me to have the same training as myself because being aware of the hazards is part of what keeps us all safe.

    Elizabeth, thank you very much for your thoughtful comment. Your experience mirrors many workers in the temporary help services industry. As you point out, across-the-board safety training for standard and nonstandard workers alike would seem to be an effective solution. The challenge is to devise a systematic way of doing that given the asymmetric information about specific safety and health risks between the agency and client employers.

    Dr. Howard,
    What is the best avenue to stay involved in this topic? As a PhD applicant, it is an area I wish to not only watch but pursue as a potential focus during my program. It is an area of interest which may have many opportunities to collect and translate meaningful data. Thank you for any advise and insight.

    Thank you for your interest in nonstandard work arrangements. Since the literature on nonstandard work arrangements is cross-disciplinary, I would scan the legal, economic and social science literature in addition to the occupational safety and health literature for good articles on the topic. Various blogs on the future of work are also a good source of information. Much success with your Ph.D. program!

    Thank you so much for the suggestions for literature search. I will also continue to watch this blog and others on NIOSH. Thank you for the well wishes.

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