Unionized construction workplaces report fewer lost-time injury claims: Study

Workers at unionized construction workplaces in Ontario are more likely than their non-unionized counterparts to file job-related injury claims, but less likely to file injury claims that result in time off work, according to a study by the Institute for Work and Health (IWH).
The study found that unionized construction firms reported 23 per cent lower rates of lost-time claims than non-union firms. The study examined Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claims data between 2006 and 2012 from more than 45,000 construction firms across Ontario. This is the first peer-reviewed Canadian study to examine the occupational health and safety benefits of unions in Ontario's industrial, commercial and institutional construction sector.

In particular, workers at unionized firms were 17 per cent less likely to experience musculoskeletal injuries (injuries or disorders affecting mobility, especially muscles, tendons and nerves) and 29 per cent less likely to suffer critical injuries (injuries with the potential to place workers' lives in jeopardy) while on the job, found the study, which was funded by the Ontario Construction Secretariat.

However, unionized firms had 13 per cent higher rates of total injury claims and 35 per cent higher rates of no lost-time claims.

“These findings suggest to us that unionized workers may be more likely to report injuries, including injuries that don’t require time off work,” said IWH senior scientist Ben Amick, co-lead investigator on the study. "At the same time, these reporting practices enable construction unions to better identify and proactively manage workplace hazards that lead to injury."

When researchers eliminated the effects a firm's size has on its overall rate of workplace injuries — larger firms typically have greater resources to devote to workplace health and safety programs — unionized firms reported 14 per cent fewer injuries requiring time off work and eight per cent fewer musculoskeletal injuries, but 28 per cent higher rates of no-lost-time injury claims. (Data for critical injuries could not be measured when controlling for firm size.)

While unionized workers may be more inclined to make work-related injury claims, these findings suggest that their claims are less likely to be of a serious nature.

“The lower rates of lost-time claims might also suggest that unionized workplaces are safer,” said IWH associate scientific director Sheilah Hogg-Johnson and project co-lead. “It could be they do a better job educating workers, in part through apprenticeship training. They may have more effective health and safety programs and practices. They may give workers more voice to influence the health and safety of their work environments, and to report not only injuries, but also near-misses.”

Other factors also need to be ruled out before one can say with confidence that unionized construction firms are safer, Amick said. One potentially confounding factor may be that unionized workers are older and more experienced at working safely. Another may be that unionized workplaces are better at offering employees modified work the day after an injury.

To help dig deeper, the IWH team is currently studying the organizational practices and policies of a sample of construction firms to examine what is behind the apparent union-safety effect.

“Creating safe and healthy workplaces is a core deliverable of unionized construction firms in Ontario,” said Sean Strickland, CEO of the Ontario Construction Secretariat. “We’ve recognized the need to move beyond simply saying unionized construction workplaces are safer, to actually proving that they’re safer. This groundbreaking study is only the first step in understanding the conditions that lead to better health and safety outcomes for Ontario’s construction workers.”