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Workplace safety a major push for unions

Clashes over practices persist, but safety is a shared interest

Workplace safety a major push for unions

While labor unions' growing expertise and involvement in workplace health and safety can spark clashes with U.S. companies, such efforts also have driven collaborative efforts with employers that bring improvements for workers and the companies.

Unions point out that they have championed worker safety as a core value throughout their history. But in recent years, they have increasingly invested in health and safety education and technical expertise, in part to improve their appeal among workers, observers say.

And it is not unusual for union and management differences over health and safety practices to become contentious bargaining-table topics, or a means for rallying union members. In one recent, high-profile example of the significance of health and safety issues in labor contract negotiations, the United Steelworkers union and the nation's major oil producers late last month reached an 11th hour agreement that prevented what could have been crippling strikes for the U.S. petroleum industry (see related story).

“Often safety issues are contentious within contract negotiations and in discussions between employers and employees,” said Stephanie Bloomingdale, secretary-treasurer for the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO in Milwaukee. She cited a decade-long demand by nurses nationwide to increase hospital staffing as an example of employers and unions diverging on spending for safety.

Safety is a real concern of unions, said Charles Craver, a professor teaching negotiations and labor relations at George Washington University in Washington. But with union membership declining and unions unable to make substantial gains in wage and benefits, they may also be seeking health and safety measures as an offset, Mr. Craver said.

But despite the possibility of disputes, many observers say that union interest in health and safety frequently results in positive collaboration with employers to reduce worker injuries and improve productivity. Indeed, joint committees of cooperating union and employer health and safety experts are increasingly common at large worksites, observers say.

“There is good cooperation when a company health and safety engineer and a union health and safety engineer preach the same thing,” said Richard King, senior vp of construction and labor negotiator for Denver-based Black & Veatch Corp., a global engineering and construction company.

It has grown common to see highly educated union industrial hygienists on building sites, because construction-project owners have increasingly demanded safety practices exceeding Occupational Safety and Health Administration requirements and unions have learned to help employers win contracts with bids made competitive through good safety practices, said Richard King, senior vp of construction and labor negotiator for Denver-based global engineering and construction firm Black & Veatch Corp. He is also a health, safety, and environmental expert and member of the Des Plaines, Ill.-based American Society of Safety Engineers.

A USW spokesman noted that the union invests significant resources into staffing its employee ranks with highly-skilled health, safety and environmental experts, because of the complex science involved in issues such as chemical exposures and petrochemical plant equipment failures.

The labor-management cooperation also can help employers obtain better workers compensation insurance pricing because reviewing workplace safety practices is a key underwriting element.

“When the employee workforce is working together with the business owners and there is agreement on safety programs and their implementation...then you are going to get better outcomes,” said Joseph Wells, senior vp and head of workers compensation, accident, and health for Zurich North America in New York. “The best way to get good (insurance) pricing is to have good outcomes.”

Most owners of very large construction projects now demand that their contractors have a record of good outcomes and have a history of injury losses below the national average, Mr. King said.

Construction project owners also require contractors to show they have a favorable insurance experience modification rating history that underwriters apply to price workers comp coverage, he said.

“If union contractors don't meet these qualifications then they don't get on the bid list and the unions don't get any work,” Mr. King said.

“Most employers believe that a safe working environment is important, and unions cooperate most of the time for proper safety,” said the Wisconsin State AFL-CIO's Ms. Bloomingdale, who also serves on the Wisconsin Worker's Compensation Advisory Council, which represents employers, organized labor and insurers in developing workers compensation law. “But there are times when there are conflicts between what the company sees as profit and employees see as safety.”

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