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Labour groups weigh in on IWH study that found unionized ICI sites are safer

Angela Gismondi
Labour groups weigh in on IWH study that found unionized ICI sites are safer

A new study by the Institute for Work and Health that claims “unionized construction work is safe work” is drawing mixed reviews from the unionized and non-unionized sectors.

Karen Renkema, vice-president for Ontario with the Progressive Contractors Association of Canada (PCA), says there are many other factors to consider when analyzing safety on construction sites.

“It’s not a straight black and white type of issue that if you are unionized you are safe, if you’re not unionized you are not,” said Renkema.

“The safest worksites of course are those where the owners prequalify contractors. It would be interesting to control the data looking at these contractors (in the study): what worksites have they worked on? The majority of these jobs that they use the data from, is there a prequalification regime in place for safety? Do they require COR (Certificate of Recognition)? You can’t just determine safety by union affiliation or non-union affiliation.”

Updating a Study of the Union Effect on Safety in the ICI Construction Sector, prepared by the IWH for the Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS), found that lost-time injury claims to the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) are 31 per cent lower on unionized building trade construction jobs than they are in a non-union environment and claims for severe injuries are 29 per cent lower on union jobsites.

Mike Gallardo, president and CEO of Merit Ontario, which represents the open shop construction sector in the province, said safety is important to all tradespeople regardless of these numbers.

“Such studies undermine the many strides made by all employers to ensure that all workers enjoy a safe workplace,” said Gallardo in an email to the Daily Commercial News. “All tradespeople value safety and to pit one set of workers against another at a time when we are all working together to fight the COVID-19 pandemic shows a lack of empathy for all of the many hardworking men and women that make up our industry.”


Study’s goal is to make industry safer, says OCS

The study is a follow-up to a study done years ago by the IWH that had similar results. The updated study found the “union safety effect” has strengthened over the past five years.

“We anecdotally thought it had gotten better because we put so much emphasis on health and safety, but we didn’t’ know that for sure so we were very pleased with those results,” said Robert Bronk, CEO of the OCS. “The findings said the industry as a whole, union and non-union, got safer but the gap (between union and non-union) widened.”

Patrick Dillon, business manager of the Provincial Building and Construction Trades Council of Ontario, said while some see the report’s findings as a competitive advantage, he is more concerned with understanding what is behind the “unionized safety advantage.”

“The report is a pretty clear indicator that unionized construction is substantially safer than our open shop competition,” said Dillon.

“The one thing that has a major impact on that safety record is the training…training for unionized construction workers is not matched anywhere in the open shop world in Ontario. The second is that workers in unions are more apt to speak up when they see an unsafe situation in their workplace.”


Study confirms what PCA already knew, says Renkema

According to their website, PCA is “not anti-union, it’s anti-monopoly.”

Its labour partner, the Christian Labour Association of Canada (CLAC), is a national union representing over 60,000 workers.

“We’re pleased that the study confirms what we knew all along, that CLAC unionized worksites are among the safest in Ontario,” said Renkema. “We were not asked to participate in this study, but our analysis internally shows a very similar story line.

“Our data that we have analyzed comes to the same conclusion as this study as we also have unionized worksites.”

Renkema explained the PCA’s analysis has been conducted through the health and safety committee and has not been publicized.

“The same WSIB data they pulled for their corresponding contractors we pulled for our corresponding contractors through our health and safety committee,” said Renkema. “This (IWH) report did not include all unions. It did not include CLAC. It’s just a specific portion of the unionized sector.”

Bronk: “The intention is safety, union or non-union”

Government, business and labour needs to collaborate, said Dillon, to understand what the drivers are that make unionized workplaces safer and put pieces in place to make all jobsites in Ontario safer.

“We need to make a business case which may take another study,” said Dillon. “If you are doing a multi-billion-dollar construction project and you have competition bidding that work…what economic value is there to the province and to the project if you use contractors that are 30 per cent safer? There has got to be a business case of how safety contributes to the economy, how does it contribute to productivity. I think there are a lot of really good things that could come out of this.”

Further research is needed, echoed Bronk.

“The point is not to say we’re better than you but to say what best practices can we glean from this and share them so the whole industry can do better across the province,” he said. “It’s not to do a comparison and use this as a marketing ploy, that’s not the intention. The intention is safety, union or non-union.”


Follow the author on Twitter @DCN_Angela.

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