Unions linked to injury claims: Study

Finds unionized workplaces have 14 per cent lower rates of lost-time claims

Hard hat, safety harness and… a union? Employers in the construction industry might consider adding unionization to their list of health and safety requirements following a recent study from the Institute for Work & Health (IWH).

The Toronto-based, independent, not-for-profit research organization’s study of unionized construction workplaces in Ontario found a correlation between unionization and job-related injury claims.

The findings showed unionized construction workplaces are more likely than non-unionized ones to file job-related injury claims, but less likely to file injury claims that result in time off work.

Compared to non-unionized employers, unionized construction companies in Ontario’s industrial, commercial and institutional sector have 13 per cent higher rates of total injury claims and 14 per cent lower rates of allowed lost-time claims.

"We found a pattern," said IWH senior scientist Ben Amick, co-lead investigator on the study. "It’s the pattern that matters, it’s very powerful."

According to Amick, these statistics suggest that while unionized workers are more inclined to make work-related injury claims, their claims are less likely to be of a serious nature.

"It’s probably because there’s leadership in the company that is really pushing down to encourage people that reporting problems is an important issue," he said. "Because if they don’t know there are problems, we can’t solve them. We think that environment is good and we also think that happens because the union provides some level of protection."

Andrew Regnerus, Ontario's construction co-ordinator for the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), agreed the protection unions provide has a significant effect on safety.

"Unions have the knowledge and resources to protect from reprisals and members know it," he said.

According to Regnerus, unions also encourage employees to actively participate in the safety of their workplaces, and to seek ongoing education on the issue.

The lower rates of lost-time claims could support the argument that unionized workplaces are safer because of their focus on education, said IWH associate scientific director Sheilah Hogg-Johnson, project co-lead.

"It could be they do a better job of educating workers, in part through apprenticeship training. 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," she said.

IWH analyzed seven years of claims data — between 2006 and 2012 — for 5,800 unionized firms employing 720,000 full-time equivalent workers and 39,000 non-unionized forms employing 810,000 full-time equivalent workers. Adjustments were made for firm size, region and classification unit.

Newer area of research

To conduct the study, IWH partnered with the Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS), which had a complete list of unionized construction companies in Ontario, said Amick.

"We could do something that was unprecedented."

According to Amick, little research has been done on the role of unions in health and safety in construction, despite the number of unionized employees and the hazardous nature of the industry.

"This filled a huge gap," he said. "I think it’s the first study that actually has a reasonably complete view of the relationship between unions and workers’ compensation claim outcomes in the construction sector."

Because of this lack of research, more investigation is necessary before concluding unionized construction firms are safer than non-unionized ones.

One important factor, Amick said, is the possibility unionized employees are often older and more experienced. It is also possible unionized workplaces offer more or better options for modified work following an injury, resulting in fewer lost-time claims.

IWH plans to continue its investigation with a study focusing on the organizational practices and policies of construction firms, to be conducted with funding from the Ministry of Labour.

Amick said he also hopes to shed light on whether job performance and quality of work are affected by unionization.

Relationships important

Alberta-based safety consultant Alan Quilley said researchers should consider the significance of relationships in future studies.

Quilley said the employer’s relationship with the union — as well as its relationship with workers — is much more telling than the presence of a union alone.

"It’s likely that if the union and management are working well together, safety, as well as any number of other areas, will be better," Quilley said.

"But a correlation does not mean causation."

Unionizing the workforce is not enough to change safety at an organization, he said.

Because while a union can be a great partner and provide significant advantages to an employer, an adversarial union can do damage.

"If you’ve got a unionized environment and the members have good communication with the union and the union has good communication with the employer, that could very well lead to having a safer, better run, more productive place," Quilley said.

"It’s the nature of the relationship rather than whether or not it’s unionized."

Quilley said employers and unions should simply focus on strengthening the relationships with each other and with workers in order to better implement the health and safety practices currently in place.

"How you communicate and how you hold people accountable matters a lot," Quilley said.

"The best practices I’ve seen would be managing the culture and managing the accountability system to make sure people are doing the right things. Best practice is say what you do, and do what you say."

Latest stories