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What rights do temporary workers have?

In our fast-moving economy, there are more temporary workers than ever before. Employers now use contract workers to fill a variety of needs, from long-term to last-minute. Whether you have a job in food service, retail, construction or any other line of work, you're working just as hard as anyone with a permanent job to earn your wages. The economy could not function without you.

Yet temporary workers are more likely to be harmed, injured or killed by unsafe working conditions than others. So how can you protect yourself?

Don't accept unsafe working conditions

You might want to just put up with an unsafe situation, worried that if you say something, you'll lose your job. Your family and friends may urge you to keep quiet. Don't wait. You're putting yourself at risk. Just because you don't have benefits doesn't mean you don't have rights. Temp workers have the same protections as permanent employees.

Typical dangers you may encounter in the workplace include:

  • Harmful chemicals that hurt your skin
  • Gases, fumes or vapors that interfere with breathing or make you nauseous
  • Loud machinery that harms your hearing
  • Blocked fire escapes or exits
  • Slippery floors
  • Improperly controlled machinery with a lack of safeguards

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulates safety in workplaces and under their rules, you have the right to ask OSHA to inspect your place of work and investigate serious hazards. You can file a claim and talk to the inspector when he or she is on site. You can ask to be trained on how to safely minimize the above exposure and machinery risks; you can ask to find out what exactly you're being exposed to. These are all rights you have as a temp worker, despite what others may imply.

Can a complaint be kept confidential?

Naturally, this action may be seen as confrontational to your boss. He or she might think that you're too much trouble to have around - and simply replace you with another temp worker from the same or another employment agency. But there are steps you can take to protect yourself - in fact, you can even stay anonymous during the process. File the OSHA complaint form and make sure you note the dangerous conditions you're dealing with at work so that they know it's serious. Ask someone to help you with it; talk to and involve some co-workers who are in the same environment. Are you in a union? Talk to them as well.

Keep notes throughout the process: when you filed a complaint, and what happened. Who else was there and what did they see or say? If the process fails and you are penalized for your action by lowered wages, shift changes or even job loss, remember that it's against the law for an employer to do this. You work hard and you deserve to be treated fairly.

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