J. Scott Bicksler was in the U.S. Army, his job was to teach others how to deal with disaster. As a nuclear, biological, and chemical (NBC) warfare specialist, he helped soldiers understand how to survive an NBC attack and how to operate equipment that would detect and respond to such attacks. He also oversaw inventory tracking and disposal for hazardous materials generated by his unit—a responsibility that led him to dig deeply into Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) regulations.
Since retiring from the military, Bicksler has continued to help keep people safe, but now he does so in the private sector, as lead safety manager for Aerotek Inc., a global recruiting and staffing agency. The Hanover, Md.-based company places over 300,000 people annually in almost every industry you can think of. Bicksler has undergone OSHA training and earned certifications in a variety of human resources (HR) areas, including labor relations, insurance and risk management, and human resources law. He has also given presentations to numerous organizations, including the Industrial Truck Association and, most recently, the 21st World Congress on Health and Safety in Singapore.
Warehouses and distribution centers often turn to staffing companies when they need seasonal or other temporary help. In this interview, Bicksler, whose team helps more than 1,850 warehousing and distribution clients safely onboard some 13,000 temporary employees each year, talks with DC Velocity Senior Editor Toby Gooley about employers' and staffing agencies' responsibilities when it comes to warehouse safety.
Q: What are your current responsibilities?
A: As lead safety manager, I have overall responsibility for health and safety in Aerotek's Strategic Sales and Operations (SS&O) organization, and I mentor 10 regional safety managers in the U.S. and Canada. We work with groups whose job is to go out and win business by, for example, reading an RFP (request for proposal) so we have a clear understanding of when health and safety is involved and what responsibilities our team may or may not have. It's our job to understand the services agreement and contract requirements for health and safety, and to get out to those sites and review what's happening there. I am also involved in our government services area, where we provide human capital solutions to government and to prime contractors and subcontractors, and in our managed services provider offering. In the latter, when a large company does business with multiple staffing companies and doesn't have time to work with each directly, it will often go to a managed services provider and ask [it] to take over management of all the staffing providers.
I'm also the legislative and governmental affairs person for the industry association California Staffing Professionals. In that role, I make sure the staffing industry is getting in front of legislators so they understand how a law affecting temporary staffing in industries such as retail could impact the constituents in their districts.
Q: Tell us about the American Staffing Association (ASA) alliance with OSHA on that agency's Temporary Worker Initiative.
A: ASA and OSHA have joined forces to develop and execute a strategic plan focused on protecting the health and safety of temporary workers in the U.S. The Temporary Worker Initiative has two goals: first, to reduce and prevent temporary workers' exposure to safety and health hazards at the client's work site, and second, to educate staffing companies and their clients and temp workers about their rights and responsibilities under OSHA regulations. Additionally, the alliance has worked to educate federal and state-run OSHA programs about the relationship between staffing companies and their clients. Through the alliance, ASA has also worked with OSHA to publish seven Temporary Worker Initiative bulletins; the last one was about powered industrial truck training. We're currently working on two additional bulletins.
ASA also worked with the National Safety Council to create the Safety Standard of Excellence program, which encourages staffing firms to adopt workplace-safety best practices and standards. Under that program, staffing firms' workplace-safety programs and practices are assessed. Maintaining the Safety Standard of Excellence designation requires an audit every two years. Aerotek is one of perhaps 20 staffing agencies that have earned this designation.
Q: What kinds of temp positions are warehouses and DCs looking to fill these days?
A: There are the usual positions like lift truck operators, loaders and unloaders, shipping and receiving, pick and pack, dispatchers, and inventory clerks. But with the growth of e-commerce, we realized the need ... to attract new talent to support seasonal warehouse demand. One of the top positions warehouses are looking for are PLC (programmable logic controller) programmers. Those positions are hot, as is anything involving computers used in operations. We're also seeing a lot of demand for facility engineers as well as industrial and manufacturing engineers to keep all the material handling equipment and machinery up and running. Engineers with quality assurance and process management skills are in demand as temporary employees for projects.
Q: Do most facilities find temporary labor through an agency?
A: Some try to go it alone if they have their own internal recruiting teams, but a lot of companies don't have the resources to take that on. If there's a specific project or a seasonal need, it can make sense to use temporary staffing companies and take advantage of an agency's established recruiting process and resources. Once that's off their plate, they won't have to worry about payroll, time keeping, or almost any of the HR functions that would be involved with an internal hire; those become the recruiting company's responsibilities.
Q: How do temp agencies find appropriate applicants for warehouse positions?
A: Every staffing company will be different, but as an example, my company has a five-step process. The first step is to understand what a client is looking for. You have to get a good description of the job requirement; if you don't, you're not going to be able to provide it with the best candidate. Once we know that, we can start by checking our internal database of potential employees. After that comes screening, which includes at least two reference checks. We'll also match the candidate's skills to the client's requirement. Depending on the client, we may also need to conduct drug screening or conduct a background investigation. Next is the selection process. We get appropriate candidates in front of the client, or, depending on the location, there may be a telephone interview. We get feedback from both the client and the candidate, which we consider in the hiring decision. The final step occurs once the temp employee starts work. We're in constant contact with the employee after the first day and first week, and on a continuous basis after that to ensure employee satisfaction. We're regularly capturing feedback from the customer, too, to make sure we have provided exactly what it asked us for.
Q: What can warehouse and DC managers do to help that process?
A: Good communication between the lead manager and supervisors who will be working with the temporary employee and human resources is critical. I would hope that any HR department would be going to the floor manager and saying, "Tell me exactly what this person needs to have as skills so we can communicate that directly to the staffing company." If you don't have that kind of communication, a staffing agency can't fill a position accurately and completely.
Q: Which party is responsible for temp employees' safety training and certification—for example, forklift operator certification?
A: The staffing agency is normally required to provide generic powered industrial truck training prior to placement. An agency of our size has more than 10,000 clients; there's no way staffing agencies could do site-specific training or specific site plans for that many clients. Site-specific training and certification is the client's responsibility, and for good reason—the client is supervising the worker, knows the worksite, and is in the best position to ensure safety.
It's the responsibility of the temporary staffing company to have a very clear understanding of the client's requirements and the type of powered industrial truck to be operated. In the case of forklift operators, we recruit for exactly what the client tells us. If the client just asks for a forklift operator, we will recruit for that. If a client wants an operator for a sit-down counterbalanced 5,000-pound Toyota lift truck, then that's what we recruit for. However, employees have to have site-specific forklift training certification. It's important to remember that forklift certification is NOT portable. The policies, procedures, and processes may be totally different from company to company, and they may have totally different forklifts. That's why site-specific training, to be provided by the client, is required.
Let me mention here that many companies use third-party training for temp workers. That's OK as long as it follows OSHA policies and procedures, and they're doing it at the client's job site. But be careful; we're seeing third parties advertising that they'll have forklift operators trained in two hours for $25 or $30. They give them a certificate, but they've only given them general awareness training, not what they actually need.
Q: Should safety-related responsibilities be spelled out in the contract between the staffing agency and the client?
A: It's critical that language about health, safety, and training be included in that contract. It's the elephant in the room. In an OSHA investigation, one of the first things they'll ask about is the agency-client relationship in regard to health and safety, and whether you have contract language specifically defining those responsibilities. Be aware, though, that OSHA makes it clear that as a warehouse or DC operator, you can't contract away your responsibility.
Q: Do you have any additional recommendations regarding the safety of temporary warehouse workers?
A: Yes, I have a few specifically in relation to hiring. First is to never assume anything about training. Always work out in the service agreement who will be responsible for what. If you don't have clarity, then go back to the staffing company, work that out, and put it in writing.
If a temporary employee thinks there is an issue regarding safety or training, or if there is a question about supervision or onboarding, go back to the staffing agency and ask for help addressing it. You don't want contract employees to feel like they're on their own in these situations.
Remember that responsibility for handling workers' compensation falls on the temporary agency, but the client that supervises the worker is responsible for properly filling out the OSHA Form 300 report (for work-related injuries and illness). When possible, the staffing agency should partner with the clinic the client has engaged to provide 24-hour medical coverage. The doctor who normally handles injuries for the facility knows what's typical, and there may be clues about recurring problems. If required, a staffing agency safety manager will do an investigation on-site to understand what happened and why, and how we could prevent it from happening in the future.
Find out about and follow best practices. For example, one aspect of the Safety Standard of Excellence I mentioned earlier covers the onboarding process for temporary employees. Also, ask whether the staffing firm is a member of the American Staffing Association and thus has access to its safety-related information.