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Study sheds light on union safety effect in construction sector

Unionized firms submit more claims but fewer lost-time ones: IWH


(Canadian OH&S News) — A recent study by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) in Toronto has concluded that unionized construction firms are more likely to submit work-related injury claims than non-unionized construction firms are — but also that unionized companies in the sector are less likely to submit lost-time injury claims.

“Protecting Construction Worker Health and Safety in Ontario, Canada” appeared on the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine’s website on Sept. 2. IWH researchers examined construction-industry claims submitted to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, Ontario’s workers’ compensation authority, from 2006 to 2012. Thirty-nine thousand non-unionized companies and 5,800 unionized ones had submitted the claims, according to an IWH press release.

Among the findings: unionized construction firms submitted a 13 per cent higher rate of claims overall and a 28 per cent higher rate of no-lost-time claims (or claims that required healthcare treatment without time off work), while non-unionized firms submitted a 14 per cent higher rate of lost-time claims and experienced an eight per cent higher rate of musculoskeletal injuries.

“What we think is going on is simply that leadership is encouraging people to report injuries,” explained Dr. Ben Amick, a senior scientist with IWH and one of the study’s lead investigators. “Unions are supporting that reporting, so you feel safe to report, and so you’re seeing more claims; that allows companies to identify and target areas where there are problems to reduce hazards,” he added. “I don’t think it’s any more complicated than that.”

Dr. Amick said he believed that the study showed that unions have a positive effect on occupational health and safety — “if you think that one indication of safety is claims data,” he noted. Unionized firms “seem to perform better if you value workers’ compensation claims rates as an important performance outcome.”

The study, which the Ontario Construction Secretariat funded, calculated the aforementioned rates after adjusting figures based on firm size. When the data were not adjusted, the study said, unionized construction firms were still 13 per cent more likely to submit claims overall, but 35 per cent more likely to submit no-lost-time injury claims, 23 per cent less likely to submit lost-time claims and 17 per cent less likely to have musculoskeletal injuries.

Dr. Amick offered several speculations to explain the study results, including differences in safety training among firms. “We think part of it is due to what’s going on at the site, the policies and practices that are being implemented during the workday. We think it might have something to do with how joint health and safety committees perform,” he said. “We think some of it may actually have to do with just the fact that union employees are a little older, they have more experience.

“And all these things are plausible.”

One of the study’s hypotheses was that oh&s is one of the indicators of high performance in a company, leading to higher-quality work with fewer errors or problems.

“This is just one piece of a bigger puzzle that has to do with union-certified employers just being better performers,” said Dr. Amick. “Health and safety’s nothing more than part of good operational work. And that’s probably more important in construction than in many sectors.”

“Protecting Construction Worker Health and Safety” can be downloaded from http://journals.lww.com/joem/Abstract/publishahead/Protecting_Construction_Worker_Health_and_Safety.99044.aspx.