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Temp Worker Safety in Danger: Sugar Plant Worker Dies Days After Removal of Safety Device

Courtesy of The Occupational Safety and Health Administration

A worker was buried alive in a sugar plant in Fairless Hills, Pa., revealing the challenges in ensuring that temporary workers have the right to be safe at work.

Janio Salinas, age 50, was a temp worker for CSC Sugar, the company that supplies sugar to Snapple and Ben & Jerry’s. On a typical day on the job, Salinas, along with many other workers at the plant, bagged sugar for the company. Their work, however, was constantly interrupted because big clumps of sugar regularly clogged the hopper, forcing workers to climb inside and remove them with shovels. On Feb. 25, 2013, Salinas went missing, only to be found buried deep underneath sugar in the hopper he had been unclogging.

An investigation by ProPublica and Univision looked into the case and found that a safety device that had been installed to address exactly this threat had been removed only 13 days before Salinas’ death. Why? Because it slowed down production.

The device—which had prevented clumps from forming, thus reducing the need to climb into the hopper—had originally been installed after safety concerns were reported to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

While OSHA has increased efforts to ensure the safety of so-called “temps,” this incident brings to light the deeply rooted obstacles that such workers face. While temporary work arrangements have grown 20% since 2003, the United States is still far behind other industrialized countries in providing labor protections for temporary workers. Many temporary workers are caught in a gap in labor protections, working in unsafe conditions and with little training—in many cases, temps face a significantly greater risk of injury than permanent workers. At the time of the tragic incident in Fairless Hills, all of the workers at the sugar plant were temporary workers. ProPublica reported that CSC Sugar had been previously fined for not training workers at another plant and found that workers at Fairless Hills had not received training either. After Salinas’ death, OSHA fined the company $25,855, which was reduced to $18,098 after the safety device was reinstalled.

Temporary workers represent a growing labor force in the United States, as large companies are outsourcing their blue-collar jobs to staffing agencies because they provide timely labor at low prices. For the workers providing the labor, though, the price is high: bottom-of-the-barrel wages, no benefits, no job security and dangerous workplaces. Immigrants also have become a major target for temp labor abuses, especially among Latinos, as they are often unaware of their rights and rarely receive training in languages other than English.

Many countries have surpassed the United States with labor protections, including banning companies from hiring temps for dangerous work or mandating equal pay for temporary workers. It is time for federal agencies and lawmakers to step up their game and extend full protections to temporary workers.

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