OHS Canada Magazine

Hand in Hand

December 23, 2015
By Jacob Stoller
Health & Safety Human Resources Institute for Work and Health ministry of labour occupational health and safety ontario study unions WSIB

The debate on the role of unions in influencing workplace safety is as old as unions are. Organized labour, by serving as employee advocates, may have a positive influence on job safety after all, according to a recent study.

On August 24, approximately 200 union trade workers walked off the job at the Green Electron nuclear power plant project near Sarnia, Ontario. Their action brought to a head a longstanding dispute over ongoing safety concerns that saw 196 written orders from the Ontario Ministry of Labour over the previous two years. Since the action, the Ministry has laid charges against Eastern Power, the contractor responsible for the jobsite.

That the union supported workers almost certainly influenced the outcome, suggests Sean Strickland, chief executive officer of the Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS) in Toronto. “It would be pretty hard to see workers empowered to do that in a non-union workplace.”

The relationship between unions and employers, however, is not always adversarial. Joanna Moro, health and safety manager at Toronto-based Safety First Consulting Ltd., believes that unions have a role to play in creating safe working environments by providing oh&s training, promoting a safety culture and enforcing reporting practices with their members.

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.

That changed on September 3 with the release of an OCS-sponsored study, “Protecting Construction Worker Health and Safety in Ontario, Canada: Identifying a Union Safety Effect”, conducted by Toronto’s Institute for Work and Health (IWH) and published in the Journal of Occupational & Environmental Medicine.


The study used existing administrative data collected within the industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) sector between 2006 and 2012 to establish a link between union membership and safety outcomes. The research team analyzed injury-claims data for 5,800 unionized firms employing 720,000 full-time workers and 39,000 non-unionized firms with 810,000 full-time workers. Sources included membership lists from construction trade associations and building trade unions, as well as claims data from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) in Toronto.

“This is the first scientific study, peer-reviewed, of this kind ever done in Ontario and, to a certain extent, North America,” Strickland says. “We are looking at seven years of data, 45,000 construction firms, 1.5 million workers. This is a very significant piece of research that will live on for some time and, I am quite confident, will help improve health and safety for all construction workers in the province of Ontario.”

The study found that 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. Unionized companies in the province’s ICI sector, when compared to their non-unionized counterparts, have 13 per cent higher rates of total injury claims and 28 per cent higher rates of no-lost-time injuries, but 14 per cent lower rates of claims involving missed days of work and eight per cent lower rates of musculoskeletal injuries.

These findings suggest that while unionized workers may be more inclined to make work-related injury claims, their claims are less likely to be of a serious nature, suggests Benjamin Amick, Ph.D., an IWH senior scientist and the study’s co-lead investigator. “Unionized workers may be more likely to report injuries, including injuries that don’t require time off work, at workplaces where managers and supervisors are committed to safety.”

The study also addresses an important gap, according to Dr. Amick. “What was done previously focused on upstream factors, such as the joint health and safety committee — not on health outcomes,” he says. “Both are important, but we really didn’t have any good health-outcome studies.”

For some, the IWH study can be regarded as a test for the unionized sector’s considerable investment in employee safety. “Our industry spends over $40 million a year in Ontario on apprenticeship training, health and safety training, journeyperson upgrading,” Strickland says. “We have also invested in capital — approximately $260 million in the facilities that deliver these training programs. So with that kind of investment, you certainly would think that you would have fairly decent outcomes when it comes to health and safety.”

The IWH study follows the footsteps of similar research in other industries. In a 2012 study entitled Coal Mine Safety: Do Unions Make a Difference?, lead researcher Alison D. Morantz of Stanford Law School concludes that “unionization is associated with a 13 per cent to 30 per cent drop in traumatic injuries and a 28 per cent to 83 per cent drop in fatalities.”

Interestingly, the study also associates unionization with a higher claim rate for non-traumatic injuries, lending credence to claims that injury-reporting practices differ significantly across union and nonunion mines.

“Overall, the results of the data linkage and analyses suggest that unionized firms in the ICI construction sector in Ontario encourage injury reporting, as reflected in higher rates of no-lost-time-allowed claims, and reduce occupational hazards and improve safety programs to reduce the rates of more significant lost-time-allowed claims, compared with non-union firms,” the IWH study concludes.

Reading Between the Lines

As industries go, the construction sector is particularly diverse, even within the ICI sector. Firms range in size from thousands of employees down to a handful, and represent a variety of trades and associated risks — everything from heights to high voltage to moving blades. There are regional disparities as well: a construction site in Timmins in northeastern Ontario is very different, culturally and otherwise, from a site in downtown Toronto.

As a result, the authors of the IWH study employ statistical models to adjust for a number of covariates, including the type of work — such as descriptions of Classification Units used by the WSIB to categorize employers’ business activities, postal codes and business complexity — and firm size, which has the greatest influence on safety outcomes. In view that most large firms are unionized and some of them are very large, they account for a disproportionate share of unionized workers.

“If you look at the paper,” Dr. Amick says, “it is certainly the case that we have equal numbers of workers in union and non-union firms. But we have a lot of large, union firms. So you could hypothesize that the observed difference would be due to the size of the firm. We did not find this to be true.”

To account for this, the 14 per cent reduction in lost-time injuries was significantly adjusted for firm size; the unadjusted number is 23 per cent. One of the most striking unadjusted figures was the reduced number of critical injuries — 29 per cent fewer overall in unionized firms. But the volume of data was insufficient to allow researchers to estimate the effect after adjusting for firm size.

“We couldn’t replicate critical injuries in the final model, because the models wouldn’t converge,” Dr. Amick explains. “Much as we had a lot of data, if we had more data, we could have done a lot more.”

Unanswered Questions

The IWH study, which the authors describe as a “first step,” acknowledges that there is much more to learn. For example, there could be hidden factors that were not measured, such as the higher proportion of older, more experienced workers in unionized firms. Workforce mobility is another challenge.

“Construction sites are a lot more fluid than other worksites,” Dr. Amick says. “You can have people that are only there for two weeks doing high-risk work. That is one of the great challenges in studying construction,” he notes.

But the most important limitation is that some firms may be falling under the radar. For instance, participation in trade associations — whose membership lists were used to calculate the total number of firms — is voluntary, so the data may exclude a significant number of smaller firms, such as those contributing to Canada’s $42-billion underground economy.

“Non-unionized employers tend to be smaller and tend to see their workers not as workers, but as independent operators,” says Carmine Tiano, director of occupational services with the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario in the Greater Toronto Area. “Some in the non-union sector also use contract agency workers, so researchers have a hard time going in and looking at those employers where the workers aren’t organized.”

In spite of the many questions that the IWH study did not address, Dr. Amick thinks that the research is important for several reasons. “Unions are an important actor in the labour market, and consequently, the impact that unions may have on health and safety is fundamentally important to understand — if there is an effect.”

From a public-policy perspective, the study seeks to address a debate relating to the practice in some municipalities in Ontario that award contracts only to union-certified employers in the construction sector. “Part of that logic for that is that they are better — for health and safety, for performance,” Dr. Amick says. “But there are groups that debate that assertion.”

As the IWH study is based on linked administrative data, it can only suggest the practices that might have contributed to the union safety effect. The authors conclude that the limitations of the IWH study are similar to those found in any study using linked administrative data.

“Future research should collect primary data to better measure resources committed to oh&s as well as the policies, procedures and practices the resources are intended to influence,” the study notes.

To delve into some of these unknowns, the IWH has recently begun a workplace-climate study that will collect and analyze such primary data.

“We have funding from the Ontario Ministry of Labour from the Research Opportunities Program to try to understand whether part of this observed difference [the union safety effect] is due to organizational policies and practices and training,” Dr. Amick says. “Our goal is to try to understand what is being done well at these worksites and to really see what the differences are.”

The MOL-sponsored study of 15,000 firms, which will collect primary data to identify practices that contribute to the union safety effect, is expected to be made available next summer.

The shaping hand of unions: a European perspective

The union safety effect is a widely debated topic that, to date, has yielded little consensus. To assess the effectiveness of safety representatives’ activities on occupational health, a project called The Impact of Safety Representatives on Occupational Health: A European Perspective was launched in 2006 by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) for Research, Education, Health and Safety in Brussels.

According to the ETUI paper, the conditions influencing the effectiveness of union representation on workplace safety include macro social and political conditions, conditions within companies, the structure and organization of safety representatives, the approaches and activities of safety representatives and the impact of unions and safety representatives on interventions and outcomes. Although the impact of safety representatives on workplace safety has rarely been included on the policy and research agenda, the ETUI paper concludes that available knowledge and research supports the finding that unions, workers’ representation and safety representatives constitute a key, powerful force for improving workers’ health and safety in the European Union.

Protecting the Weakest Links

The most vulnerable workers are those who work for smaller, non-union employers. Fear of reporting accidents or unsafe conditions — let alone of refusing unsafe work — is believed by many to be widespread and a major threat to safety, the IWH study suggests.

“Reporting accidents, health and safety violations, in certain places, would be your ticket to layoff,” Tiano says. “However, in a unionized environment, it is easier for workers to meet the reporting obligations, and if there is a reprisal, there is a body that will fight for them and protect them.”

Tiano adds that unionized workplaces spend more time training employees on their reporting obligations. That, he says, will translate into a higher incidence of reporting in a unionized setting.

Strickland says the mere act of reporting leads to better safety outcomes. “You are reporting your near-misses, for example, and all kinds of issues on the job that, if not reported, could lead to more critical injury.”

But the lack of reporting does not necessarily stem from deliberate suppression — it can also arise from a lack of knowledge or resources, particularly in the case of smaller firms.

“The question is, how do we give resources to smaller employers to help them fully understand the reporting environment?” asks Andrew Pariser, chair of the health and safety committee with the Residential Construction Council of Ontario in Vaughan. “Health and safety has gotten more complex. If you look at the size of the Green Book in the 1980s versus today, there is no comparison,” Pariser says, referring to the handbook Occupational Health and Safety Act and Regulations for Construction Projects.

When studying the impact of union presence on safety outcomes, it is important to bear in mind that safety, when pursued in a disciplined manner over the long term, is good for both businesses and employees.

“If you have a safe workplace, you have less incidents, less injury, less property damage, less downtime,” says Kari Harris, vice president of health and safety at EllisDon Corporation in London, Ontario. “That said, the investment in a safe workplace is twofold. Because with a safe workplace, you will often see better production, a healthier workplace and a more engaged workforce — they are all very interconnected in the way they operate.”

Moro concurs. “Putting the money, effort and time into safety and being proactive in the long run makes the jobs run quicker, with better quality and more efficiently because of the atmosphere,” she says. “When a site is clean and safe, workers can get the job done more easily, and they tend to show more respect for the site as well. Maybe they will spend the extra effort to complete a job really nicely, so quality improves.”

That being said, safe jobsites cannot be achieved merely by following rules; there needs to be a significant cultural transformation throughout the entire organization. “I believe that safety has to start from the top down,” Moro adds. “If the employers see safety as a priority, then the workers are going to see safety as a priority. So I think it is imperative that an employer is putting two feet into a safety program and filtering it all the way down to the workers.”

Safety on All Fronts

As Harris points out, a safety culture requires a substantial, long-term commitment from the entire organization. At EllisDon, safety planning for projects begins long before the shovels hit the ground. The company has instituted mandatory requirements for sub-trades and assistance for those who have difficulty complying.

“Engaging everybody at all levels throughout the organization has been a large part of our success,” Harris says. “Everybody here has responsibility to ensure safety — from the chief executive officer all the way down to the workers, as it is part of our core values that safety comes first before production, schedule, operations, anything. So with that, people are empowered.”

Employers who understand the importance of safety tend to see unions as partners. “Continuous safety improvement is a collaborative effort of unions, of workers, of employers, of government, of safety associations,” Harris says. “We all have the same desire to do our best. I think as long as we work together, we can move it towards that.”

Ensuring that workers have basic safety training is another factor. “Training costs a lot of money for employers,” Moro notes. “When the union is there to back them up and provide this training, that is a major weight and burden off an employer.”

Moro points out that unions will also offer support to employees who need help, such as processing a WSIB claim. And unions can shape workers’ attitudes toward safety in the long run.

According to Harris, workers have to go through a process when they join a union. “They are certainly vetted through the union’s onboarding process, and additionally, their work history stays with the union. Workers are required to attend training through the apprenticeship programs prior to entering the workplace,” she says.

Tiano believes that the issue of worker safety has received minimal attention and calls for a major public awareness campaign.

“When was the last time you saw a public-service announcement on prevention and a worker’s right to refuse unsafe work?” he questions. “Look at Mothers Against Drunk Drivers (MADD). It is out there. There needs to be a strategy for getting safety into the public discussion. Then you can start to change the culture.”

Harris agrees that safety needs to have a broad appeal. “I think if we can make an emotional appeal to people that safety is everywhere and not just in your workplace, it changes their mindset. And that is certainly how we try to target our employees — and even the general public — when we are working in busy public areas where we have to be very mindful of vehicular and pedestrian traffic. Having that emotional appeal just takes it to that next level.”

A campaign that changes the thinking of the average Canadian would work on several levels. For one, it may be the only way to reach the smaller firms, which number 38,000 in Ontario alone. As well, the message will reach buyers and politicians who, ultimately, have the power to bring about changes.

For Dr. Amick, the difference in occupational health and safety performance between unionized and non-unionized construction firms is clear. He points to the IWH study’s findings as a “fairly persuasive pattern,” which leads to the conclusion that in union-certified workplaces, management and leadership encourage reporting and that workers feel protected by labour advocates when doing so.

“There are a lot of questions that this study raises rather than answers,” he acknowledges. “But we are very confident of our findings.”

Jacob Stoller is a writer in Toronto.


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