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Labor Perspectives on Occupational Safety and Health. Tom O’Connor, National Network of Committees on Occupational Safety and Health. Objectives. To understand the primary elements in the perspective on occupational health and safety among labor union representatives.

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Labor Perspectives on Occupational Safety and Health

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labor perspectives on occupational safety and health

Labor Perspectives on Occupational Safety and Health

Tom O’Connor, National Network of Committees on Occupational Safety and Health

  • To understand the primary elements in the perspective on occupational health and safety among labor union representatives.
  • To understand the primary criticisms labor unions have of current U.S. occupational safety and health policy.
  • To identify examples of health and safety campaigns undertaken by labor unions.
labor union philosophy regarding osh
Labor Union Philosophy regarding OSH
  • Fundamental problems of worker health and safety are not technical but tied to power relations and control between workers and management
  • Worker participation in development and implementation of OSH programs is critical to their success
  • OSHA programs must have strong enforcement and penalties large enough to have strong deterrent effect
labor union philosophy
…Labor Union philosophy
  • Work injuries are primarily caused by unsafe conditions not worker behavior
  • Workers’ knowledge of rights and willingness to use them are key to safer working conditions
  • Meeting OSHA standards is not good enough: should strive for maximum hazard reduction possible
are technical solutions enough
Are technical solutions enough?
  • Labor unions argue that while technical solutions to OSH problems are essential, they are insufficient to provide a safe and healthy work environment: other factors such as active worker involvement, workers’ ability to refuse hazardous work and to exercise other safety/health rights are critical.
workers rights to take action
Workers’ Rights to take Action
  • Right to refuse dangerous work: must be a real right, not just on paper
  • Right to file a complaint and get an inspection without fear of retaliation
  • Right to accompany an inspector on a walkaround of the workplace
  • Right to obtain information on hazards of materials with which they work
legal rights and union backing
Legal Rights and Union backing
  • Unions argue that rights are meaningless without adequate enforcement: in most non-union workplaces, legal rights are impossible to enforce.
  • Better protections often available through union contracts than through OSHA law.
worker participation essential
Worker Participation Essential
  • Workers must be involved in every aspect of the development and implementation of OSH programs to ensure their success
  • Many studies have supported the labor view that worker participation is key for safety and health as well as quality
worker involvement must be meaningful
Worker involvement must be meaningful
  • Workers must not be merely “window dressing” on joint health and safety committees, but must have meaningful roles and believe that they can influence policies and practices.
what causes work injuries
What Causes Work Injuries?
  • Increasingly popular “Behavior-based Safety” programs emphasize worker behavior as key to causing injuries.
  • These programs often offer “Safety Incentives” to individual or groups of workers for injury-free records
safety incentives
“Safety Incentives”
  • Many unions say that these programs unfairly “blame the worker” and miss the true cause of most injuries: unsafe working conditions.
  • Unions say these programs provide incentives not to report injuries and result in underreporting, not in actual injury reductions.
organizational factors influence health and safety
Organizational Factors influence health and safety
  • In recent years, unions focus more on the contribution of organizational factors to safety and health conditions.
  • Of particular concern: contracting out, downsizing, speed-ups, shiftwork, excessive overtime.
  • Fewer workers + longer hours + greater demands = more work injuries and illnesses
adequate enforcement essential
Adequate Enforcement Essential
  • Union view is that main purpose of government safety agencies is to enforce the law and that it must have adequate resources to do so.
  • Argue that OSHA’s resources are inadequate to the task—few inspectors for hundreds of thousands of workplaces.
osha staffing budget
OSHA Staffing & Budget
  • OSHA budget in 2003 sufficient for 2,313 full-time equivalent positions
  • Down from peak of 2,951 in 1980.
  • Budget is equivalent to $4.15 per private sector worker.
adequate enforcement staff
Adequate Enforcement Staff?
  • On average, federal OSHA and state programs have enough inspectors to visit each workplace once every 80 years.
  • Ranges from every 14 years (Nevada) to every 244 years (Louisiana)
penalties a credible deterrent
Penalties : A credible deterrent?

Farm pays fine for violations stemming from worker's death

  • “A Sioux Center, Iowa, farm has paid $1,125 in fines for violations connected to an employee's death this summer.” (Sioux City Journal, Sept. 30, 2003)
  • Worker died from lack of oxygen in liquid storage tank. No training done despite well-known hazard.
  • Average penalty nationally for serious citation (for conditions causing substantial probability of death or serious physical harm) is $886.
  • Average penalty (serious) by state range from $269 (Oregon) to $4,996 (California.)
public employees left out
Public Employees Left out
  • States given option of covering public employees in state-run programs.
  • 8.3 million state and local government employees around the country are not covered by OSHA protections. (26 states plus D.C. do not provide OSHA coverage to public employees.)
management accountability lawsuits criminal prosecution
Management Accountability: Lawsuits & Criminal Prosecution
  • Unions support holding management executives accountable for gross negligence leading to death in the workplace.
  • Successful prosecutions rare but not unknown (e.g., Imperial Foods case)
  • Growing momentum in the U.K. for more criminal prosecutions for flagrant violations of safety and health laws.
workplace health promotion
Workplace Health Promotion
  • Some suspicion among unions of programs that emphasize lifestyle factors over work hazards.
  • But programs that address both factors may meet with receptive audience among union members.
labor unions and worker health and safety
Labor unions and worker health and safety
  • “It is important to recognize that throughout the often tragic history of worker health and disease, the worker played a primary role as the basis of every significant improvement in legislation, factor inspection, compensation, correction, and prevention…”
labor and osh improvements
…Labor and OSH improvements
  • “…Labor unrest, protests, strikes, lawsuits, and catastrophes were vital catalysts in obtaining action.”

Herbert Abrams, “A Short History of Occupational Health” in Advances in Modern Environmental Toxicology 22: 33-71 (1994)

labor s limitations
Labor’s Limitations
  • Decline in memberships, particularly in U.S., means less power, fewer resources
  • No consensus within labor movement that OSH programs deserve significant share of declining resources
summary of union views
Summary of Union Views
  • Technical solutions to OSH problems must be accompanied by sufficient worker empowerment and authority to protect their health and safety.
  • OSHA’s primary role should be to enforce the OSH Act and sufficient resources must be allocated to enable this function.
  • Unsafe conditions, not unsafe worker behavior is the primary cause of job injuries.
for more information
For more information:
  • AFL-CIO’s Health and Safety page:
  • “Hazards” Magazine website:
  • National COSH Network website: