Unionised workplaces within the construction sector appear to deliver better outcomes with regard to safety compared with workplaces where unions are not present or do not have a strong presence, an overseas study suggests.
Based on an analysis of seven years of data between 2006 and 2012 in the Canadian province of Ontario, researchers from Canada’s Institute for Work & Health (IWH) found that construction workers in unionised companies were more likely than those in non-unionised companies to report injuries overall but reported lower rates of serious injury and injury requiring time off work.
According to the study, after adjusting for differences associated with firm size, compared with their non-unionised counterparts, workers in unionised companies report:
- 13 per cent higher rates of total injury claims (both allowed and not allowed)
- 28 per cent higher rates of allowed no-lost-time injury claims (i.e. claims that require health care but don’t result in time off work beyond the day of injury)
- 14 per cent lower rates of allowed lost-time claims (i.e. claims that involve missed days of work)
- Eight per cent lower rates of musculoskeletal injuries.
IWH senior scientist Dr Ben Amick said that, coupled with the lower levels of claims for serious injuries, the higher propensity of overall injury claims among unionised workers might suggest those who belong to unions generally feel more comfortable about reporting their injuries, including those for which time off work is not required.
Fellow co-lead researcher Dr Sheilah Hogg-Johnson says the lower levels of claims for serious injuries might also suggest that unionised workplaces are generally safer. The researchers did caution, however, that other factors such as unionised workers being on average older and more experienced than their non-unionised counterparts and unionised workplaces having greater supports in place to offer modified tasks after an injury has taken place would need to be ruled out before this conclusion could be reached with any level of confidence.
“It could be they do a better job educating workers, in part through apprenticeship training,” Hogg-Johnson said. “They may have more effective health and safety programs and practices. They may give workers more voice to influence the health and safety of their work environments, and to report not only injuries, but also near-misses.”
The report comes as building unions in Australia have come under attack over what the government, Fair Work Building and Construction and employer groups claim is rampant unlawful activity on building sites.
One area of claim, especially by FWBC, is that union officials have been using safety as an excuse for breaching right of entry provisions.
Union officials, however, say their role is essential to delivering safer practices on site and that many union members and officials are being persecuted merely for speaking out and making a stand about safety as well as wages and conditions.
The IWH study was followed by the Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS), a tripod organisation of government, employer and union representatives that promotes the value of the building sector in Ontario.
The researchers note the study does not in itself shed any light on why claim data may differ between union and non-unionised workplaces, and that the team is currently looking at a sample of organisational policies and practices at construction firms to explore reasons behind the apparent union-safety effect.
OCS CEO Sean Strickland says the importance of the research cannot be understated.
“Creating safe and healthy workplaces is a core deliverable of unionized construction firms in Ontario,” Strickland said. “We’ve recognized the need to move beyond simply saying unionised construction workplaces are safer, to actually proving that they’re safer.”