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Headshot - Robert Bronk

Robert Bronk

Chief Executive Officer, Ontario Construction Secretariat.

There is a “Union Safety Effect” in the Industrial, Commercial, and Institutional construction sector that creates safer workplaces.

This had long been believed by the Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS), but there was no real data to substantiate the claim. So six years ago, the Institute for Work and Health (IWH) launched an in-depth study of Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claims made by workers in the ICI sector.

The data was clear — lost-time claims by unionized workers were 23 percent lower than those made by their non-unionized colleagues.

But that study, released in 2015, relied on data up to 2011. Last year, the OCS once again engaged the IWH to update the research.

And what they found not only reinforced that the Union Safety Effect exists, but that it is getting stronger.

The team of researchers lead by IWH scientist Dr. Lynda Robson analyzed WSIB data from more than 58,000 companies representing 1.7 million workers in the ICI construction sector between 2012 and 2018.

The new report, Updating a Study of the Union Effect on Safety in the ICI Construction Sector, found lost-time injury claims are 31 percent lower on unionized building trade construction jobs than they are in a non-union environment — a jump of eight percentage points over the past six years.

The updated study also found that claims for critical and musculoskeletal injuries are 29 percent and 25 percent lower respectively on union job sites.

Interestingly, the updated research also concluded that as the size of the company grows, fewer claims are filed for injuries requiring time away from work, with 36 percent fewer claims in unionized companies with more than 50 employees — and it’s no coincidence that the bigger building trade construction firms tend to be unionized.

This study was thorough.

It started by cross-referencing the companies in WSIB records with those of ICI building trade unions and union contractor trade associations to identify which records were from the unionized sector, and which were not.

A statistical analysis of six types of injury or illness — lost-time allowed (LTA), musculoskeletal LTA, critical (severe) LTA, no-lost-time allowed (NLTA), total allowed and total allowed and not allowed — then determined whether unionization had an impact on the injury rate claims.

Injuries that caused the workers to miss work were of primary interest. The researchers also took steps to minimize the influence of outside factors such as geographic location, the nature of the work being done, and the size and complexity of the company.

This methodology mimicked the study from six years previous, to ensure a fair comparison of the results.

The data doesn’t lie, and reaffirms what we have always suspected: A unionized building trade construction job is being done safely and properly by men and women who know what they are doing.

The obvious question is why?

Why are unionized building trade construction sites demonstrably safer than those being worked by non-union workers?

The research was focused on hard data and didn’t delve into this question. However, there are several solid hypotheses to answer that question.

Building trades unions and their contractor partners offer the best-skilled trades training, with significant investments in health and safety training — an estimated $40 million annually.  This is in addition to the capital investments made in training facilities and equipment.

The unionized building trades construction sector has more than 95 training centres across the province, offering health and safety training and trade-specific upgrade training, funded and operated by a partnership of building trade unions and contractors. Of those, 39 are government-approved training delivery agencies offering trade apprenticeship training with health and safety training a significant component of each trades’ curriculum.

Strong partnerships like this make for safer workplaces. The ICI building trades construction sector benefits greatly from the joint partnerships between contractors and unions. This collaborative working relationship has made the unionized building trades construction sector a safety leader in the construction industry.

This training not only teaches skilled trades workers how to work safely and responsibly, but it also gives them knowledge about safe work practices, educates them to recognize unsafe working conditions, and empowers them to refuse work that may be hazardous until appropriate measures are made to make it safe.

Unionized building trade construction firms also tend to employ more registered apprentices and have higher journeyperson-to-apprentice ratios, according to their trade’s respective collective agreement.

This gives apprentices better on-site training and first-hand experience identifying unsafe working conditions — knowledge that they put to use throughout their career in the skilled trades. Union workers are also three times as likely to hold a Certificate of Qualification than non-union workers.

The Union Safety Effect could also, in part, be the effect of unionized ICI construction companies providing more stable employment, less worker turnover, and longer tenure for their tradespeople.

This creates more experience on a job site, and again, the wherewithal and empowerment to refuse work that is unsafe.

The next question is what?

Now that a Union Safety Effect has been identified, what can be done with this insight?

From a practical standpoint, this is an opportunity to make construction safer for everyone. Knowing that the Union Safety Effect exists allows us to examine in depth the “why” question raised above. 

Doing an analysis of the factors that make the union work safer in the building trades construction sector will help us identify the best practices that make it that way.

Adapting these best practices from unionized building trade construction sites and applying them across the construction industry will make work safer for everybody.

Adapting these best practices from unionized building trade construction sites and applying them across the construction industry will make work safer for everybody.

Preventable incidents hurt people, reduce productivity and affect worker morale. The more that can be done to reduce lost-time due to injury, the better it is for everybody.

7 years WSIB* claims data from 2012 -2018. 60425 construction firms assessed. 1.7 million cumulative FTE employees. 39 WSIB construction sector groups. The workplace safety and insurance board (WSIB) administers a single-payer workers' compensation insurance program for the province of Ontario
The union effect. Unionization is associated with: 29 percent lower incidence of critical injuries claims. 25. percent lower incidence of musculoskeletal injury claims. 31 percent lower incidence of lost time injury claims. In analyses without statistical adjustment in comparison to non-union firms. Statistical adjustments do not significantly alter the union safety effect.
Why choose union? Unionization is associated with: Safety first unparalleled focus on worker safety results in lower rates of injuries requiring time away form work. Training 95 join union-employer train centres delivering 3 million hours of trade and safety training Partnerships unions and contractors working together to enhance safety and construction practices.
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