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Unionized firms are safer, concludes OCS-funded study

Lindsey Cole
Unionized firms are safer, concludes OCS-funded study

A new study analyzing injury claims data for 5,800 unionized firms and 39,000 non-unionized firms suggests unionized construction firms in Ontario are safer than non-union firms.

"We’re quite pleased with the calibre of the research. It’s groundbreaking in terms of being the first bona fide scientific study on the union safety effect, certainly in Ontario," says Sean Strickland, chief executive officer of the Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS). "We’ve recognized the need to move beyond simply saying unionized construction workplaces are safer, to actually proving that they’re safer. Our next steps are that we have to look at what some of the policy implications are. Why is it safer? How can we use that information to improve safety for the entire construction industry in Ontario?"

The study, entitled, ‘Protecting construction worker health and safety in Ontario, Canada: Identifying a union safety effect,’ was funded by the OCS and carried out by the Institute for Work & Health (IWH). It examined claims data from the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) between 2006 and 2012, and was also published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. The study revealed unionized companies in Ontario’s industrial, commercial and institutional sector (ICI), compared to their non-unionized counterparts, and taking firm size into account, have:

— 13 per cent higher rates of total injury claims;

— 28 per cent higher rates of allowed no-lost-time injury claims;

— 14 per cent lower rates of allowed lost-time claims; and

— eight per cent lower rates of musculoskeletal injuries.

When size is not adjusted, the results show unionized firms have 13 per cent higher rates of total injury claims, 35 per cent higher rates of no-lost-time claims, 23 per cent lower rates of lost-time claims, 17 per cent lower rates of musculoskeletal injuries and were 29 per cent less likely to suffer critical injuries. The IWH notes that adjusting for firm size does take into account that larger firms, both unionized and non-unionized, may have greater resources to devote to injury prevention and post-injury work accommodation.

"These findings suggest to us that unionized workers may be more likely to report injuries, including injuries that don’t require time off work, at workplaces where managers and supervisors are committed to safety," says IWH Senior Scientist Dr. Ben Amick, co-lead investigator on the study, in a statement.

What’s more, "the lower rates of lost-time claims might also suggest that unionized workplaces are safer," adds IWH Associate Scientific Director Dr. Sheilah Hogg-Johnson and project co-lead.

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

Strickland says it did not come as a shock to him that the findings suggest unionized firms are safer as more than $40 million a year is typically spent on various training initiatives.

"We in the unionized industry intuitively knew that because of our investment in health and safety and training," he says. "This is the first empirically based study that actually does prove it. It’s not the unionized industry saying we’re safer, it’s not the Ontario Construction Secretariat saying we’re safer, it’s the Institute for Work & Health and the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine saying we’re safer. So if there’s groups that want to challenge their methodology, they’re welcome to do so. But based on the empirical nature and scientific nature of the study, it’s pretty clear that there’s a union-safety effect."

With that said, Amick notes, there are other facts that need to be ruled out before "one can say with confidence that unionized construction firms are safer. One potentially confounding factor may be that unionized workers are older and more experienced at working safely. Another may be that unionized workplaces are better at offering employees modified work the day after an injury," the release reads.

The research doesn’t allow them to say what explains the difference in claim rates. As such, the IWH team is currently looking into organizational practices and policies of a sample of construction firms to examine what is "behind the apparent union-safety effect."

"I think it’s important to put it into context the significance of these findings and also the amount of claims that are paid to construction workers in the province of Ontario. It’s quite substantial as per the WSIB," adds StrickIand. "If we can take this study and improve construction safety and reinforce what we’re delivering as a unionized industry across the province, it will be good for our industry and the industry as a whole."

Follow Lindsey Cole on Twitter @DCN_Lindsey.

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