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Labor Perspectives on

Occupational Safety and


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
 Fundamental problems of worker health and
safety are not technical but tied to power
relations and control between workers and
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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
 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?
 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, e.g., a cash
bonus for no reported injuries:
What’s the Problem?
“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
 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
 Fewer workers + longer hours + greater
demands = more work injuries and illnesses
Adequate Enforcement
 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
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?
 On average, federal OSHA and state
programs have enough inspectors to
visit each workplace once every 80
 Ranges from every 14 years (Nevada)
to every 244 years (Louisiana)
Penalties : A credible

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
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
 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
 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
 “Itis 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
…Labor and OSH
 “…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 OSH Campaigns
“Fatigue Kills” Truck Drivers
“Safer Needles” Campaign
Australian work hours campaign
Labor’s Limitations
 Decline in memberships, particularly in
U.S., means less power, fewer
 No consensus within labor movement
that OSH programs deserve significant
share of declining resources
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:
 AFL-CIO’s Health and Safety page:
 “Hazards” Magazine website:
 National COSH Network website: