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Unions and Safety for Workers

Posted by EHS Insight Staff on July 8, 2019 at 9:47 AM

Your workers deserve safe and fair working conditions. But before labor unions, they didn’t have much power to negotiate for such conditions.

Today, labor unions have huge sway over workplace safety standards, for unionized and non-unionized workers alike. And if your company wants to thrive, you have to be willing to come to the negotiating table.

Here’s why unions have so much power to create safer workplaces, and why your company should work with labor unions to increase safety for your workers.

Do Unions Really Make Safer Workplaces?

First, let’s address the basic question: do unions actually make workplaces safer?

According to several studies, the answer is yes.

A study of right-to-work laws published in the BMJ Occupational & Environmental Medicine journal found that a 1% decrease in unionization resulted in a 5% increase in occupational fatalities.

In Kansas, Missouri, and Nebraska, all states with right-to-work laws, there was a notable increase in workplace deaths due to falls, machine hazards, and struck-by hazards.

And in construction, often regarded as one of the most dangerous industries in the country, a survey showed that construction firms with union workers were far more likely to engage in safety practices than those with non-union workers.

How Unions Promote Workplace Safety

There are many theories as to why unions help promote workplace safety.

One likely explanation is worker protection. Under the wing of labor unions, workers are free to speak up about safety hazards without fear of retaliation. And because unions can put pressure on employers to fix safety problems, employers are incentivized to fix and prevent problems – or face significant productivity losses.

The Power of Collective Bargaining

One of the biggest advantages unions have is the power of collective bargaining. An individual worker can often feel that they don’t have a voice, or that if they speak up alone, they won’t have much power to affect change.

By joining a union, workers agree to bargain for their rights as a collective entity. This gives them far greater leverage to bargain for things like better safety conditions, improved wages, and reasonable work hours. The fact that they cover an entire group forces employers to come to the table.

Of course, the work of a labor union doesn’t end with reaching a collective bargaining agreement. Once an agreement is reached, union representatives work with employees and management to ensure that the terms of the agreement are honored on both sides.

Why Unions Help All Workers

Unions can influence the safety of all workers because of two things:

  1. Restriction of labor supply
  2. Increase in labor demand

Companies need workers. But workers have the right to a safe and fair working environment. Unions leverage this by increasing the demand for union laborers, which in turn forces companies to negotiate with them to access union workers.

This, in turn, sets the standard for non-union workers. A specific workplace may not be unionized, but an industry is – and that means that the workplace must comply with industry standards.

Navigating Worker Safety

At the end of the day, labor unions and companies have related goals. Companies want to create a great product or service for their customers. Unions want to give workers the best possible working conditions to thrive in their work environments. By working together, you can ensure worker safety and productivity in equal measure.

Featured Resources:

Topics: Workplace Health and Safety, Utilities, Mining & Metals, Oil & Gas, Manufacturing, Biotech & Pharmaceuticals, Automotive, Safety Management, Building Materials & Construction

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