Unionized construction firms see fewer costly, serious injuries: study

A new study by the Institute for Work & Health, Protecting Construction Worker Health and Safety in Ontario Canada: Identifying a Union Safety Effect, published online in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, reports evidence that unionized construction firms in Ontario are safer than non-union firms. The study, which examined Workplace Safety and Insurance Board (WSIB) claims data between 2006 and 2012 from more than 40,000 construction firms across Ontario, shows that unionized workers reported 23 per cent fewer injuries requiring time off work than non-union workers. This is the first peer-reviewed Canadian study to examine the occupational health and safety benefits of unions in Ontario’s industrial, commercial and institutional (ICI) construction sector.

The study was based on 5,797 unionized and 38,626 non-union construction firms in Ontario. The study found that although overall workers’ compensation claim rates were higher in construction firms that employ union workers, most of these claims consisted of less costly, less serious medical-only claims, which do not incur lost wage reimbursements.

In particular, workers at unionized firms were 17 per cent less likely to experience musculoskeletal injuries (injuries or disorders affecting mobility, especially muscles, tendons and nerves) and 29 per cent less likely to suffer critical injuries (injuries with the potential to place workers’ lives in jeopardy) while on the job.

Despite filing fewer claims resulting in critical injuries and time off work, unionized workers did report a greater total number of “no lost time” claims – incidents that did not result in lost wages, productivity, or disability or impairment.

“These findings suggest that unionized workers are encouraged to report injuries, including injuries that don’t require time away from the job,” says Institute for Work & Health Senior Scientist Dr. Ben Amick, co-lead investigator on the study with fellow Senior Scientist Dr. Sheilah Hogg-Johnson, and chair of the Department of Health Policy & Management at the FIU Robert Stempel College of Public Health & Social Work. “At the same time, these reporting practices enable construction unions to better identify and proactively manage workplace hazards that lead to injury.”

When researchers eliminated the effects a firm’s size has on its overall rate of workplace injuries

  • larger firms typically have greater resources to devote to workplace health and safety programs
  • unionized firms still reported 14 per cent fewer injuries requiring time off work, and eight per cent fewer musculoskeletal injuries. (Data for critical injuries could not be measured when controlling for firm size.)

In the journal article, the scientists discuss other factors that might explain the union safety effect. These include more robust specialized apprenticeship, upgrade and safety training requirements for union members; programs and practices that more effectively identify and reduce construction work hazards; a safety net that allows union workers to report accidents without fear of repercussions; ongoing skills training programs that provide a foundation for safer skilled work throughout one’s career; and a more effective role for unions in influencing government regulations designed to improve workplace health and safety.

“Creating safe and healthy workplaces continues to be a core value of the unionized construction industry in Ontario,” says Sean Strickland, Chief Executive Officer of the Ontario Construction Secretariat. “This first-of-its-kind study shows that the union safety effect is having a tangible impact in Ontario’s ICI construction sector and through our investments in safety, specialized training and apprenticeship programs the unionized construction sector in Ontario is showing its commitment to being a leader in worksite safety and productivity.”

The study by the Institute, which was funded by the Ontario Construction Secretariat (OCS), will be published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine. Altogether, seven years of injury claims data for unionized and non-unionized firms employing more than 1.5 million full-time-equivalent workers were analyzed for this study.

The study was conducted in Canada but has direct implications for the industry in the United States where 74,950 construction workers suffered “lost-time” injuries in 2010, according to statistics collected by the National Safety Council. Lost-time injuries consist of on-the-job injuries serious enough to keep workers from doing their jobs, requiring expensive workers’ compensation lost wage reimbursements.   Workers’ compensation payments totaled more than $61.8 billion in 2012, according to the most recent available data from the U.S. Social Security Administration. Historically, the construction industry accounts for approximately 15 per cent of overall workers’ compensation payments on an annual basis. So the “safety effect” described by the study represents billions in potential savings on workers’ compensation expenditures for the industry when construction firms employ unionized workers.


A new study shows construction firms that hire union workers have fewer work injuries requiring workers’ compensation payments for time away from work.
A new study shows construction firms that hire union workers have fewer work injuries requiring workers’ compensation payments for time away from work.

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