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Avoiding death on the job


Labor unions are the main reason that deaths in workplaces have been reduced. They are the reason that safety precautions exist and are enforced at all, though far from universally. Every workplace has its perils, but they are especially striking in areas like construction and chemical engineering.

The only remaining hazard-free job is probably the repairing of folding doors of extinct telephone booths.

Collective bargaining, grievance machinery, political activism and dogged, tenacious and ruthless litigation are what keeps catastrophic injury from becoming routine. Employers, unless they're sanctioned, see it as part of the cost of doing business.

Most bosses wouldn't make worker safety a priority unless the harm to their 'bottom-line" was commensurate with the hurt of the worker. Giving a damn is a business decision not made lightly. Often it is feigned while under duress.

If businesses cared, they would do so naturally without coercion, but that is a fictional "real world.”

All kinds of workplaces, not just factories, warehouses, schools and construction sites, have their own unique safety issues. To some degree, they all depend on the intervention of external authority, particularly in the form of government regulation,to discourage injury in the line of duty.

Unions need industrial hygienists almost as much as they need lobbyists, though tongue-wagging critics are leery of both.

A contractor doing abatement work in a NYC school some years ago didn't follow protocol. He walked down the hall and blithely dumped a big piece of asbestos-lined pipe into an office garbage can as though it was a fistful of gum wrappers.

The "powers that be" wanted the incident to retroactively not occur. They probably figured that what people didn't know wouldn't hurt them. Or if it did, their involvement wouldn't be discovered until they were retired and playing shuffle-ball in Boca.

In exchange for an implicit expectation of a perk as reward for their non-disclosure, some individuals  were prepared to keep it secret. But the teachers union found out. They immediately sent an industrial hygienist and other personnel. 

The faculty was temporarily re-deployed among several neighboring schools, a thorough inspection and comprehensive cleanup by an independent firm was done, air-quality samples were taken from every part of the building, and the results posted in plain language with an intelligible key to interpretation.

After the "all clear,” staff returned, confident in the knowledge that the union had kept everyone honest.

The teachers union's own experts investigate and identify many potential workplace hazards, such as black mold, rodent infestation, radiation, noxious gases and many other environmental hazards. They ensure the dangers get remediated with no compromise of scientific standards.

The union fends off its critics by refusing to be thwarted by their lambasting. During Covid,  extremist media lashed out at teachers unions for assuring that CDC-guidelines were followed and personal protection equipment was readily available.

Many other unions have also been the eyes, ears and fists of workers who strive to remain intact at the end of their tours of duty.

The U.S. Department of Labor notes that "a recent report surveying the construction industry, published by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute, based on publicly reported Occupational Safety and Health Administration data, found that union worksites are 19 percent less likely to have an OSHA violation, per OSHA inspection than non-union workers.

Overall, while unions represent 14 percent of the construction industry employees, their employees account for only 5 percent of the industry's OSHA violations.”

Despite all the precautions and observed regulations, there are over 5,000 workplace deaths annually in the United States. Many more workers will be handicapped because of managerial indifference.

No compensation suffices for the inconsolable.

Except for The Chief, there's been scant coverage of the Plumbers Local 1 union suit against the city's Department of Buildings for their alleged practice of overt green-lighting, overlooking and tacitly approving the rampant use of unlicensed plumbers to install gas lines.

Hiring unqualified and unfit non-unionized workers should be treated as a wilful act of criminality.  If applicants cannot, or are not asked to submit the legally-mandated proof of their certification, they should be ineligible and turned away or turned in.

The DOB's snarky excuse: "We're not detectives.”

No need to be a sleuth when there is no mystery: gas pipe welders employed by union contractors earn almost double the total pay and benefits of  non-unionized laborers.

Construction trade workers are especially dependent on their unions to watch their backs. Although they constitute only about 6 percent of the national labor force, they incur around 20 percent of fatalities on the job. According to Safety and Health Magazine, they have a 1 in 200 chance of being killed over a 45-year career.

In 2020, they suffered 351 fatal falls. "More than half of these accident victims had no access to a personal fall arrest system.” Many other deaths involved heavy equipment such as cranes or were caused by other violent trauma.

By hitting them hard in their corporate wallets for the consequences of their failure to deliver prudent oversight, corporate compliance could be incentivized.

Unions should hold their ground in all workplaces where their members' safety and well-being is at stake. Otherwise, disaster is literally an accident waiting to happen.

That is borne out by the research of Michael Zoorob at Harvard University a few years ago.

In "How Unions Help Prevent Workplace Deaths in the United States", he illustrates the direct connection between the rate of worker fatalities and the apparent causative conditions in "right to work" states.

The truth is emphatic and inescapable: "After controlling for other variables, the statistical model finds that unions have a protective effect on workplace fatalities across the states. Specifically, a one-point increase in the unionized workforce was associated with a 2.8 percent decline in the rate of occupational fatalities. By weakening unions, right-to-work legislation has been associated with about a 14 percent increase in the rate of occupational fatalities.”

Management should be required by law to provide unions with all health and safety-related information in its possession, even if there haven't been any accidents.

That's a tall order. Some Houdini-esque  corporations have found legalistic loopholes to escape the chains of accountability. 

One of them is that disclosures might compromise "trade secrets.” Two unions, the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers and the International Chemical Workers Union learned that the hard way almost 50 years ago.

Every worker should have the unabridged right to refuse work that puts them in imminent danger. Exercising that right should not make them susceptible to disciplinary action. Neither should they be compelled to carry out assignments pending an OSHA inspection and federal district court injunction.

A threat to life and limb should not require consummation for it to be judged as credible.

The positive correlation between greater union presence and improved safety in workplaces is shown by studies of coal mining, firefighting, nursing and elsewhere.  When violations are reported by workers, their unions are the supreme guardians of whistleblowers against retaliation.

According to the Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law (Duke University Press), "Prior to 1966, companies could claim that the issue of occupational safety and health was an area of management prerogative outside the scope of the union's legitimate concerns, and hence refuse to discuss the matter at all.”

That was corrected by the National Labor Relations Board in its 1966 "Gulf Light v. International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers" decision.

At every stage of every project that is part of the federal government's huge new investment in infrastructure, unions should have a paramount role and any effort to ignore or marginalize them should trigger bruising action against employers.

Just as freedom, howsoever precarious, has historically been won even for the benefit of non-combatants who may not have asked for it, desired it, or been grateful for it, so are unions still struggling and overcoming, so that even "right to work" ignoramuses may partake of their common blessing.


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