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Yes, Union Construction Really Is Safer

Here in the United States, it can be difficult to gather conclusive proof that union construction really is safer.

Rough comparisons can be made based on fatality statistics. For example, we know that in Michigan from 2000-2014, 11 percent of construction fatalities were union members. However, union members made up 25 percent of the construction workforce in the state during that time, so fatalities to union members were much less common than to non-union members.

LIUNA General President Terry O'Sullivan
LIUNA General President
Terry O’Sullivan

Looking at non-fatality data is more difficult, since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) does not collect data on union status for injuries. And in most states in the U.S., workers’ compensation data is gathered by individual compensation carriers – making it difficult to collect and analyze data on a larger scale.

“LIUNA members know their sites are safer than the rest of the industry because the difference every day on the job,” says LIUNA General President Terry O’Sullivan. “Investing in training and educating workers pays off down the road for both union contractors. It’s that simple.”

Now a new study from Ontario’s Institute for Work & Health (IWH) offers a chance to answer this question based on a larger, more complete dataset. The Canadian province of Ontario collects workers’ compensation claim data and information on union status through the Ontario Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB).

In the study “Protecting Construction Worker Health and Safety in Ontario, Canada,” IWH researchers examined all injury claims in Ontario between 2006-2012. This included data from almost 5,800 unionized construction firms and over 38,000 non-union firms. After adjusting for number of employers and several other factors (e.g., type of construction, region of the province, etc.), here is what they found:

  • Unionized firms had 13 percent more total claims than non-union firms. (However, the study shows these excess claims were all non-lost work time claims.)
  • Unionized firms had about 14 percent fewer lost work time claims.
  • Unionized firms had 29 percent fewer lost time claims from “critical incidents” (e.g., traumatic injuries)
  • Unionized firms had 8 percent fewer lost time claims from musculoskeletal injuries (e.g., sprain, strains and other ergonomic injuries)

The obvious question is why union firms have more claims overall yet fewer lost time claims. IWH researchers suggest union workers may be less afraid to report injuries when they do occur (underreporting injuries in construction is a well-documented problem) since they have the support of the union to protect them from repercussions. They also suggest union training programs may be more effective at educating workers about hazards and their rights on the job, which could lead to behavior changes.

A variety of other factors could also come into play: unionized firms may have more effective safety programs and practices (e.g., reporting of “near misses”), workers may have more of a voice in the workplace and union workers tend to be more experienced than their non-union peers.

“There’s no denying that the union safety effect is real,” says O’Sullivan. “When labor and management work together, it means safer jobs for workers and higher productivity for employers. That’s something LIUNA’s signatory contractors have known for years.”

To find out more about how you can improve safety on your jobsite, call the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety & Health Division at 202-628-5465.

[Scott Schneider is the LHSFNA’s Director of Occupational Safety and Health.]

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