Report: Union construction sites draw fewer safety violations

A new analysis of Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) inspections at construction jobsites in nine midwestern states backs up what unionized tradespeople have long been saying.

Union jobsites are safer jobsites.

The report, released Nov. 30 by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Project for Middle Class Renewal, found that unionized construction workers were exposed to 34% fewer health and safety violations in 2019 than their nonunion counterparts.

“With our nation readying at least $1.2 trillion in new infrastructure investments, it is vital to understand safety trends in construction because it is one of our economy’s most physically demanding and dangerous occupations,” study co-author Frank Manzo IV, director of the ILEPI, said. “The data makes clear that the unionized side of the construction industry is producing vastly superior outcomes.”

In Minnesota, OSHA inspectors found 40% fewer violations per inspection on union worksites than they did on nonunion sites in 2019. Violations turned up, on average, 5% less frequently on union sites.

The union advantage

Local union leaders said the study points to an often-overlooked advantage of their construction model. Union members have a voice over their working conditions and, when they need to speak up about unsafe conditions, the protections of a union contract.

“When you walk on a union jobsite you know that safety is not just a buzzword or toolbox talk,” said Chris Peltier, a business agent for LIUNA Local 563. “We can have confidence knowing that every contractor on site has provided all of their employees with the best resources in the industry and quality training. We know that every worker on the jobsite shares the same culture and has the same goal – that every worker returns home to their families safe and sound at the end of the day.”

Adam Duininck, director of government affairs for the North Central States Regional Council of Carpenters, said construction unions “make it a priority to work together with our contractors, developers and members to prevent workplace injuries and ensure members return home safely to their families at the end of each workday.”

Safety is a cornerstone of union training programs, too. Unions and their signatory contractors partner to sponsor, develop and administer world-class apprenticeship programs in Minnesota and across North America.

“We start by providing new apprentices with OSHA training and continue to provide more advanced safety education throughout our members’ careers,” Duininck said.

A public cost of unsafe sites

In conducting their analysis, researchers examined data on more than 37,000 OSHA inspections conducted in 2019. They found that union jobsites were 19% less likely to have any health and safety violations. The number of violations per inspection was 34% lower on union jobsites.

Robert Bruno, a professor at the University of Illinois and co-author of the study, said the lax health and safety practices more prevalent on nonunion construction sites put workers at risk and increase strain on the workers’ compensation system.

“Construction worksites with OSHA violations are more likely to suffer workplace injuries, which can impose billions of dollars per year in added burdens on businesses and state workers’ compensation systems,” Bruno said. “Employers that take preventative and proactive steps to lower the risk of injuries and illnesses experience greater levels of output on the jobsite, and ultimately save money for both themselves and taxpayers.”

Attack unions, undermine safety

The difference between violation rates on union and nonunion jobsites was notably greater in Michigan (49%), Wisconsin (59%) and Indiana (64%), states where Republican lawmakers have repealed prevailing wage and passed right-to-work laws in recent years.

Prevailing-wage laws require employees working on state-funded projects to be paid wage rates comparable to those paid for similar work in the region. With a prevailing wage built into all bids, contractors bidding for public projects compete on skill, productivity and other factors – not on who can scrape together the cheapest workforce.

“A safe workplace is filled with workers and an employer that puts safety before profits, something we rarely see on nonunion worksites,” said Duininck.

The report makes clear, authors said, that measures to weaken unions and their collective bargaining power come at a potentially steep cost.

“Safety problems are not just a threat to the health of the construction workforce our nation needs right now, they impose real burdens that hurt productivity, shrink output and increase costs,” Bruno said. “The data is very clear: embracing the institutions that correlate with better safety outcomes in physically demanding occupations can be a win-win-win for workers, businesses, and taxpayers alike.”

Apprenticeship is key

To promote safer construction worksites across the country, the researchers suggest that policymakers seek to promote institutionalized training and high safety standards with prevailing wage laws, responsible bidder ordinances, project labor agreements and the repeal of so-called “right-to-work” laws, which have been linked to weaker apprenticeship systems in previous research.

“Registered apprenticeships aren’t just attaching workers to middle-class construction careers, they are training workers in industrywide best practices for operating heavy machinery, working with hazardous materials, and avoiding preventable accidents on the jobsite,” Manzo added. “There is no doubt that this work isn’t just paying off from the standpoint of reducing fatalities, but also from the standpoint of preventing the very health and safety violations cause these tragedies.”

Matt Johnson, a senior instructor at the Laborers’ Training Center in Lino Lakes, said workers who make the jump from non-union firms to his union apprenticeship program often tell him they wish they would have had his safety training when they worked non-union.

“I love being able to pass on the knowledge that I have learned over the course of my years working and help others prevent mistakes that I myself have made,” said Johnson, who worked in the field as a construction Laborer for nearly 18 years before going to work as an instructor.

“Unfortunately there’s a misconception for a lot of owners that safety training costs more money than it is worth,” Johnson added. “I see it differently. Work injuries not only cause bodily harm, they also cost money, and we can help prevent that with good training.”

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