Tuesday, August 31, 2010

OHS in downsizing, outsourcing and homework

Precarious employment—work characterized by poor wages, few benefits, difficulty accessing statutory protections and entitlements, and job insecurity—is an important theme in the study of labour and employment.

The risk of workplace injury is of particular concern for precarious workers. Two recent review article provide an overview of the health and safety effects of organizational choices such as downsizing, outsourcing and home work.

In “Under pressure, out of control, or home alone? Reviewing research and policy debates on the occupational health and safety effects of outsourcing and home-based work”, Australian researchers Michael Quinlan and Philip Bohle examined 25 studies to determine the effects of subcontracting and home-based work to determine whether such arrangements exposed workers to greater risk of injury, illness or assault.

Ninety-two percent of the studies found poorer OHS outcomes with the remainder finding mixed effects. The mix of research methods and indicators of OHS in the 25 studies reviewed make these finding persuasive. The authors suggest that economic pressures on workers (encouraging greater work intensity and compromised standards), disorganization (i.e., a lack of systematic training and supervision) and regulatory failure (i.e., difficulty in ensuring statutory minimums are met) all contribute to these outcomes.

A second study by the same authors (“Overstretched and unreciprocated commitment: Reviewing research on the occupational health and safety effects of downsizing and job insecurity”) considers the OHS effects of restructuring and downsizing. The resulting use of temporary workers and rising job insecurity exhibits dimensions of precariousness. Of the 86 studies identified, 85% found poorer OHS outcomes, 8% found mixed effects, 5.8% finding no effect and 1.2% finding a positive effect. The authors again use notions of economic pressures, disorganization and regulatory failure to explain these poorer outcomes.

Overall, these studies add substantial weight to the notion that precarious work can increase the risks faced by workers. They also provide a useful theoretical framework within which to study individual workplaces.

-- Bob Barnetson

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