Are Union Workers Safer?

A colleague recently shared an article with me about the differences in accident and incident re- porting in unionized roofing construction compared with non-union firms. The study, “Protecting Construction Worker Health and Safety in Ontario, Canada”, which was conducted by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH), a non-profit research organization headquartered in Toronto, suggests unionized construction firms experience fewer serious and costly injuries than non-union firms. The IWH study states construction firms that employ union workers have fewer work injuries that require workers’ compensation payments for time away from work.

Although the IWH study was conducted in Canada, it has direct implications for the roofing industry in the U.S. According to Injury Facts, a publication of the Itasca, Ill.-based U.S. National Safety Council, 74,500 construction workers suffered “lost-time” injuries in 2014. Lost-time injuries are on-the-job injuries serious enough that they keep workers from doing their jobs and require costly workers’ compensation reimbursements.

The IWH study’s findings indicate unions, as well as unionized construction firms, may encourage occupational injury reporting and reduce risks through training, hazard identification and control.

To unionize or not to unionize? That is the question that has gone on since unions first began to organize. I myself am a union journeyman, but I see the positive and negative aspects to both sides. In the construction trades, unions are hiring halls for skilled workers. Workers will either shape up or wait to be called for work on a daily basis. These workers will be at one site for a while, get laid off, then simply move on to another site. Union tradesmen have no vested interest in a company, whereas company employees’ livelihoods depend on the company doing well.

Whether union or non-union, I believe the discrepancy lies in company culture. Employees of non-union roofing firms may not report minor injuries or work-related illnesses because they may be afraid of being fired or that reporting would have a negative impact on the company. In addition, the owner and management of a company may not be aware of the implications of not reporting—or underreporting. And there’s always the possibility that this male-dominated culture may frown on reporting as being weak.

Unfortunately, there are roofers who believe they cannot compete if they follow OSHA and other governmental standards. More often, some roofers hire day-laborers and give them no training and no workers’ compensation benefits. I have heard stories of some of these workers being injured and dumped out of the back of a pickup truck at a local emergency room like garbage.

On the other hand, I have worked with non-union firms that place a high value on safety. The owners of these companies demand even the smallest incidents be reported. Perhaps this is so they can track trends in the workplace: If there are many employees being injured in the same way, the company can take steps to fix the issue.

Also, minor injuries, if not treated immediately, can become major hospitalizations. Imagine a worker steps on a nail, then keeps working. The wound becomes infected and septicemia develops. The worker ends up in the hospital. In keeping with the new OSHA reporting standard, OSHA must be called within 24 hours of the injury. This may spark an OSHA inspection of the company’s site.

Another example: An employee twists his lower back on the job, then proceeds to “work through it.” He goes to bed that night and in the morning the pain is so severe he can’t get out of bed. Now we’re dealing with a lost-time incident that must be documented on the 300 Log. Beyond that, how does the employer know it truly happened on the job and not outside?

Union roofing firms tend to be larger in scope. They tend to do mostly higher-dollar-value jobs. For this reason, union roofing firms tend to keep better records, which is important in the case of OSHA inspections or legal disputes over a workplace injury. Documentation—or lack thereof—will show whether an employee took all reasonable precautions to carry out his or her work safely, as well as prove whether all safe operating procedures were followed. Importantly, documentation can lower the liability that arises for failure to take reasonable care on the job site.

Documentation is also required in several OSHA standards. Under the OSHA Recordkeeping regulation (29 CFR 1904), covered employees are required to prepare and maintain records of serious occupational injuries and illnesses, using the OSHA 300 Log. This information is important for employers; insurance providers; workers; and OSHA in evaluating the safety of a workplace, understanding industry hazards, and implementing worker protections to reduce and eliminate hazards.

Employers who cannot or will not see the value of providing a safe and healthful workplace and who believe they should not have to follow governmental regulations end up being a burden on society—because when their workers get killed or seriously injured, it is a burden on everyone. Unions can’t completely stop these problems, but they can help to alleviate them through member training.