Workers Health & Safety Centre

Safety effect for unionized Ontario construction sites grows stronger, study

A new study confirms previous research which finds unionized construction sites in Ontario are safer and workers on those sites experience fewer work-related injuries.

The “union safety effect”, a short-hand phrase for the role unions play in improved occupational health and safety outcomes, has grown stronger in recent years according to the study. Researchers suggest unions may promote safer working conditions by negotiating protections in collective agreements, ensuring regulatory compliance, offering information and training to members, participating on health and safety committees, advocating for hazard controls and empowering workers to exercise their rights.

Documenting a “union safety effect”

The new study was conducted by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH) for the Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS), a joint labour-management organization that represents the collective interests of the unionized construction industry in Ontario’s industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) construction sector. Robert Bronk, OCS Chief Executive Officer said in releasing the new study, “The data doesn’t lie and reaffirms what we have always suspected. It is encouraging to see data that assures a unionized job is being done properly and safely by people who are fully trained in what their tasks are.” 

The study, an update to research completed in 2015, was carried out by a research team led by IWH scientist, Dr. Linda Robson. Its more recent findings were presented at a webinar hosted by IWH as part of its ongoing speaker series.
 
Researchers drew upon Ontario Workplace Safety & Insurance Board data from 60,425 company classification units (corresponding to construction activity) and from 58,837 companies matched to records of unionization (provided by OCS). In such a way they were able to examine the relationship between unionization and injury claim incidence between 2012 and 2018 and to examine how findings vary by company size and types of construction work. Injury/illness claims examined included lost-time allowed (LTA) claims, musculoskeletal LTA, critical (severe) LTA, no-lost-time allowed, total allowed, and total allowed claims and those not allowed. The study did not review occupational disease claims.

Study findings

Researchers reaffirmed a union safety effect and report with “a high degree of confidence” the association had grown stronger since the previous study. The researchers report, on unionized construction sites (compared to non-union sites):
  • lost-time injury claims were 31 per cent lower (23 per cent in 2015)
  • Critical injury claims were 29 per cent lower (30 per cent in 2015).
  • Musculoskeletal injury claims 25 per cent lower (17 per cent in 2015)
  • The union effect was stronger in larger workplaces. Work sites with 50 or more employees had LTA rates 44 per cent lower, with 20-49 employees, rates were 24 per cent lower, with 5-19 employee, rates were 25 per cent lower. No union effect was observed in workplaces with less than 4 employees.
  • While the 2015 research found unionized workplaces reported more no lost-time injuries, that finding was not statistically significant in the updated study.  

The authors of the new study suggest training is among the factors that may promote a safety effect noting, “With training and union backing, unionized workers could be more empowered to report on unsafe conditions, refuse unsafe work and ensure enforcement when needed.” Other factors in play may include higher journeyman-to-apprentice ratios, less worker turnover and longer job tenure. IWH research has found workers who are temporary, new to a job or newcomers to Canada can be at increased risk of injury.

Similar research conclusions

Others suggest unions play an important role in pressing for increased enforcement. A recent U.S. study published in the International Law Review showed positive effects of union certification on an organization’s rate of Occupational Safety & Health Administration inspection, the percentage of inspections carried out in the presence of a union representative, violations cited, and penalties assessed.

Another study, published during the current pandemic in the journal Health Affairs, found the presence of a union in New York State long-term care homes unionization was associated with better access to personal protective equipment, something the authors suggest was also a factor in improved patient outcomes. Unionized homes had a 30 per cent relative reduction in resident death rates from COVID-19 and a 40 per cent relative reduction in rate of resident infection.

Closer to home an important and growing body of research by LOARC, a labour-driven group of researchers, has also been examining the factors, including knowledge activism, which contributes to worker representative success in achieving safer, healthier work. 

WHSC virtual classroom. Learning and safety assured.

Most Ontario workplaces regularly employing 20 or more workers are required to have a joint health and safety committee (JHSC), including construction projects expected to last three or more months. While training all health and safety representatives to carry out their considerable functions is always good practice, once a construction project employs 50 or more workers and lasts three or more months Ontario law requires the committee to establish a worker trades committee and train at least two representatives chosen to serve as certified representatives, one representing workers and another the employer.

The COVID-19 crisis presented an unprecedented challenge in terms of providing access to WHSC’s essential and mandatory training programs. WHSC quickly retooled our delivery model in a way we could still ensure the integrity of our training and safety of participants and instructors. This we achieved with our WHSC virtual classroom training.  

For virtual training, all that is required by the participant is a high-speed internet connection and a computer with a functioning camera and audio. When registering be sure to supply the participant’s home address, as resource materials critical to successful participation will be shipped to this address.

Be sure to check out our complete schedule of virtual classroom training, including COVID-19GHS-WHMIS and Certification Part I, Part II and Refresher training. Properly trained, certified joint health and safety committee members can play a critical role in creating safe and healthy workplaces and in controlling COVID-19 exposures. For this reason, we have offered JHSC Certification training in safe, virtual classrooms throughout the pandemic and will continue to do so this winter. 

Beyond scheduled classes, and where participant numbers warrant, we can also work with you to coordinate almost any of our training courses in a virtual classroom for all workers, workplace representatives and supervisors.

Need more information still?
Call a WHSC training services representative in your area.
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Additional related resources:
How unions make a difference on health and safety. A TUC guide to the evidence
COVID-19-Resources