For two centuries, workers in every industry and from every background have collectivized in order to secure safe and healthy working conditions. Huge leaps have been made in that time, but because around 15 people per day died on job sites in the U.S. in 2019, there is still much work to be done.
When thinking about what we can do to reach zero worker fatalities, it’s helpful to look back and begin to understand what efforts contributed to the successes achieved so far.
Organized labor was one of the most significant driving forces behind workplace safety in the early and mid-20th century. While trade unions aren’t the only reason for workplace safety improvements, and they’ve even historically dropped the ball on primarily pushing for safer workplaces, there’s much to be learned from their efforts, particularly advocating workers’ voices and promoting worker engagement when planning for safety.
The changing landscape of worker fatalities in the U.S.
Every preventable worker fatality is a sign of the work we still need to do in the field of health and safety. However, it’s still worth acknowledging the tangible successes achieved so far.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated a worker fatality rate of 61 deaths per 100,000 workers in 1913. In 2019, the rate was 3.5 per 100,000.
The achievements made in the past hundred years didn’t occur because of the work of one group or tactic. Instead, we have seen workplaces become demonstrably safer through a combination of worker organization, academic research, such as the work done by Dr. Alice Hamilton, and state and federal regulatory activities, like establishing OSHA, MSHA, and NIOSH. These efforts created both policy and physical changes in workplaces: safer equipment, improved PPE, ventilation, new training requirements, and changes in work shifts and patterns.
These mechanisms have worked hand-in-hand to achieve what each one couldn’t alone.
Where does organized labor fit in?
Organized labor and the labor movement have been a driving force in improving safety, both demanding individual workplace improvements and bringing important issues to the attention of legislators. The 1877 Massachusetts factory inspection law was parallel to the labor action demanding the same outcomes. In the early 1900s, organized labor set its sights on workers compensation. Labor unions also helped craft the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970.
Today, unions continue to advocate for safety and achieving goals. In March 2020, United Auto Workers persuaded General Motors, Ford, and Fiat Chrysler to agree to a partial shut down of operations to slow the spread of the coronavirus in plants and communities and won protective gear, including masks.
How organized labor benefitted health and safety
Organized labor alone isn’t the sole force behind modern health and safety, but a focus on health and safety by a union that empowers workers can prove to be critical not only for workplaces but for workers’ lives.
As Josh Gottlieb, President of Amalgamated Trades, said, “Organized labor works for safer working conditions, but these actions go live in different ways. Traditionally, unions run apprenticeship programs. Apprenticeships help workers gain valuable experience and learn the dangerous elements of the job from a skilled worker before trying it themselves. Workers affiliated with a union also typically work together over periods of years and across multiple projects. When teams work together, they build trust that can translate to lower incident rates.”
Researchers suggest that U.S. public health practitioners can see unions as partners in public health because the union contract “advances many of the social determinants of health, including income, security, time off, access to health care, workplace safety culture, training and mentorship, predictable scheduling to ensure time with friends and family, democratic participation, and engagement with management.”
In the global context, trade unions can be seen as playing an important role in both industrial countries and development labor markets. A 1995 World Bank report noted:
"Trade unions can play an important role in enforcing health and safety standards. Individual workers may find it too costly to obtain information on health and safety risks on their own… a union can spread the cost of obtaining information on health and safety issues among all workers, bargain with employers on the level of standards to be observed, and monitor their enforcement..."
Research on the impact of organized labor is complex
At the same time, other work has shown that the impact of union membership on health becomes more blurry when controlled by demographics. Research results among several cohorts of workers consistently show that union workers are more likely to report a work-related injury, including time away from work. However, today’s research needs to control for important factors, such as union members having more options for reporting injuries and having help in accessing workers compensation claims. Additionally, today’s workplaces not only have strong but varying regulatory requirements, but are now more likely to have a strong safety culture, and there’s no mechanism for investigating the potential impact of these factors.
Additionally, OSHA estimated in 2016 that as many of half of severe injuries go unreported, which can complicate the available data further.
A study published in 2021 found that individuals have a negative perception of their workplace safety climate when they are union members; though, the authors believe there may be causal factors, such as unionized workers having a greater education and awareness of safety than non-union workers.
Additionally, it’s well understood that organized labor isn’t the beginning and end of workplace safety. The ABC 2021 Safety Performance Report found that through the STEP safety program they deploy to members, it’s possible to reduce TRIR and DART through efforts like:
- Tracking and reviewing activities for preventing and controlling injuries - 64% reduction in TRIR and DART
- Conducting daily toolbox talks - 76% reduction TRIR and 78% in DART (compared to monthly toolbox talks)
- Getting involvement from the highest levels of the company - 59% reduction in TRIR and DART
Zero workplace fatalities is possible through worker involvement
So what can we learn from organized labor about working towards zero fatalities and fewer workplace incidents?
Whether you love or hate the idea of unions and organized labor, both historical events and statistics show that active worker involvement in health and safety has positive outcomes. Workers are far, far less likely to die on the job in 2021 than they were 100 years ago. Additionally, workers (and people in general) are now more informed of the hazards that they face at work and huge efforts have been made to eliminate and mitigate hazard exposure. And much of this work was initiated and championed by organized labor.
You don’t need a union to center worker involvement in workplace safety; unions exist to promote and protect workers who get involved and give them a stronger voice. Every employer can strive to put workers’ voices front and center in safety regardless of how their labor is organized. ABC presents a great example of non-union worker involvement: the ABC STEP Safety Management System offers a framework for improving employer involvement, providing workers with health and safety resources, and reducing recordable incidents up to 85%, which is six times better than the Bureau of Labor Statistics average.
Worker involvement can come in many forms, and there’s reason to believe we can eliminate workplace fatalities. Because not only do we have an ever-growing knowledge of workplace safety, but we have more tools than ever to engage and involve workers in their own health and safety — both occupational and holistically.