Are unionized workplaces safer?

Safety managers need to stay above the fray during labour disputes

Are unionized workplaces safer?
Union members of Teamsters Local 419 clench their fists after about 700 baggage handlers and ground crew workers went on strike at Pearson International Airport in Toronto on July 27, 2017. REUTERS/Chris Helgren
Glyn Jones

What is the impact of unions on workplace safety? Different people will give contradictory opinions. Some say, “Unionized workplaces are safer.” Others say, “Unions stall advancement of work systems including safe work systems.” What is the real situation here? What is the impact of unions on safety at work and how can we work most effectively to ensure unionized workplaces are safe and productive workplaces? Plus, as a safety professional, how should you approach your role in providing safety leadership in a unionized workplace?

Unions and unionized employees are an important force in the Canadian workplace. It is reported by labour organizations that over five million people — or approximately 30 per cent of working Canadians — are unionized. Labour unions have a long and proud history of fighting for the rights of workers. This fight has very often included fighting for health and safety rights. Unions have championed worker safety as a core value throughout their history. Many of the gains achieved in terms of improved safety at work can be attributed to the efforts and successes of unions, which have benefitted all workers in Canada.

What is the union safety effect? The overall impact of the union presence on safety outcomes, or the so-called union safety effect, has been frequently debated in the Canadian construction industry, but until recently, not rigorously researched. Studies show that organized labour may have a positive influence on workplace safety. According to research completed by the University of Alberta’s Parkland Institute, published in a document entitled Making it Home: Alberta Workplace Injuries and the Union Safety Dividend, direct worker participation makes a big difference in reducing workplace injury rates. Bob Barnetson, author of the document and associate professor at Athabasca University, says that “(Although) we are not trying to imply that unionization is the only way to improve workplace safety, the data certainly shows that unions provide a significant safety dividend that benefits all Alberta workers.” Worker participation tends to be more effective in larger and unionized workplaces and unionized employees also tend to serve as advocates for safe work across the organizational chart.

After an incident, there always seems to be greater discourse between the union and management. The media is quick to report on problems in communication and a lack of proactive action to prevent incidents. In the media, it appears that the unions blame the employer, which is exacerbated by the fact that unions often issue press releases slamming the company. Is the union always right or is it just a matter of perception? The reality is that what this situation represents is a major communication disconnect. The management team has the responsibility to design a safe work system. Further, the employee group, union and management have the responsibility to work together to achieve safe production. Safety is a collective responsibility and management can’t make the workplace safe without the active participation of all employees. After an incident, the union and management need to take time to work together and look at what improvements are required in the work system to better ensure safety.  

Systemic problems may be highlighted, such as violence against front-line health-care workers, and it seems that the media describes the employer as doing nothing about it or being unwilling to put forward the resources necessary to drive the changes needed. The answer to these types of problems is collective problem-recognition and problem-solving between the union and management. The safety professional has a role to play in ensuring this process is followed, that input is sought from both sides and that collective risk reduction solutions are implemented. A shortage of resources is not an excuse for not implementing solutions that reduce employee risk. 

It’s important to note that the safety professional has a proactive role to play before these types of problems emerge, to help ensure greater collective ownership for workplace safety. This proactive action is important for improving collective ownership for work processes, procedures and outcomes.

 Often, there are major disagreements, like random drug testing, that create ongoing tension in the workplace between unionized employees and the management team. These issues often take years to resolve. In the case of random drug testing, the issue has been in front of the courts for over a decade now. Tension grows. This creates a unique opportunity for the safety professional to build a brand as an advocate for safety first and not get involved in the politics or practicalities of such issues. Be visible, be the servant leader and stay out of the argument. Understand both sides of the issue, but be careful to keep your opinions to yourself. As a safety professional, you are an advocate for worker safety and not the union or management position on these matters. Find ways to help workers improve safety and efficiency, and don’t get dragged down in the debate or get labelled as supporting one side or the other. 

Safe production is the goal in every workplace. Improving efficiency, boosting productivity and even profitability is key to global competitiveness and sustainable operations. Unionized organizations need to constantly look for ways to increase their competitiveness in an increasingly global economy. Increased employee participation and dialogue needs to be the goal. The benefits of having engaged workers with ground-level knowledge of OHS who participate in the health and safety system will certainly help create better solutions to issues before someone is hurt on the job. The safety advisor is an important conduit for information flow that goes up, down and across the internal responsibility system and has to be the catalyst for increased participation and dialogue.

This article originally appeared in the October/November 2018 issue of COS.