Unions keep construction workers safer, study shows
Unionized construction workers are significantly less likely than their non-unionized counterparts to be seriously injured on the job, a new province-wide study shows.
The report, the first rigorous analysis of its kind in Canada, examined Workplace Safety and Insurance Board claims data from more than 40,000 construction firms across Ontario. It found that workers with unionized firms reported 23 per cent fewer injuries that required time off than those at non-union shops.
Unionized workers were also 17 per cent less likely to experience muscle, tendon, and nerve injuries that affect mobility. They were almost 30 per cent less likely to suffer critical injuries — defined as those that place workers’ lives in jeopardy.
“One of the things that I think our study shows is that one way to identify firms that are doing well is to identify unionized firms,” said the report’s lead investigator, Dr. Ben Amick, of Toronto-based think tank the Institute for Work and Health.
“That may not be the only way but I think we need to have a discussion about what’s going right.”
The forthcoming study was funded by the Ontario Construction Secretariat, which represents 25 building trade unions in the industrial, commercial, and institutional sector and their contractors.
“There’s a general kind of understanding that the unionized construction industry is safer than the alternative,” said the organization’s head, Sean Strickland.
“I think it’s important to have this kind of study to actually prove that this is indeed the case.”
The research looked at injury claims between 2006 and 2012 for firms employing more than 1.5 million full-time Ontario workers, in what Amick calls one of the most comprehensive studies in North America.
Strickland said he believes the results show that unions’ investment in robust apprenticeships and skills training “pays dividends” when it comes to workplace safety. The secretariat invests around $40 million a year in training programs and operates 95 training centres in conjunction with contractors across the province.
While the report found that unionized workers were less likely to claim serious injuries, they were more likely to file less serious incidents, which Amick says allows construction unions to better identify workplace dangers.
The safety differences between union and non-union firms were less significant when controlled for size, since larger firms tend to have more resources invested in workplace health and safety programs. But even when the effects of size were eliminated, unionized firms still showed 14 per cent fewer serious injuries.
In 2011/2012 the Ministry of Labour issued 60,340 orders to construction firms it found to be in violation of health and safety regulations. Of those, around 5,500 were stop-work orders — issued when a workplace hazard poses an immediate risk to a worker’s health and safety.
“Many buyers of construction want safe job sites but often don’t want to pay for it,” Strickland said. “It’s important to recognize that more safe jobs are also more productive job sites.”