Does union presence improve OHS?

The trade union movement is an important element in the management of safety in workplaces but over the last twenty years, with the exception of a couple of industry sectors, the membership numbers have waned.  Until recently in Australia, the union movement was able to maintain a level of influence in the government decision-making process that was contrary to its declining membership.

Last week the Deputy Prime Minister, Julia Gillard, told the ACTU to stop lobbying the government and instead generate innovation, enthusiasm and members by reintroducing itself to the community.  Union membership spiked in response to its anti-Howard government advertising over three years ago but any membership based on fear is unsustainable.

Paul Kelly in today’s Australian is more forthright about the trade union position in society and politics but it is clear that the union movement needs to refocus.

Health and safety representatives (HSRs) have been a major element of the enforcement of safety standards in workplaces.  Some OHS legislation in the last decade has had to emphasise non-union consultation on safety issues to balance the declining presence of HSRs.  New research from Europe has found the following

three researchers reviewed
the studies done on the matter in Europe. They
conclude that having trade union representation
leads to better observance of the rules,
lower accident rates and fewer work-related
health problems.

“having trade union representation leads to better observance of the rules, lower accident rates and fewer work-related health problems.”

Transposing these findings into a non-European context is unwise but the research could provide a model for independent research and a comparative study.

Regrettably the report is not available for free but can be purchased through the European Trade Union Institute.

Kevin Jones

6 thoughts on “Does union presence improve OHS?”

  1. The job for the union movement now is to build on the important and valuable OHS skills and experience outside its established industry sectors.
    If, as research shows, unionised workplaces are safer, cannot the unions market this fact to new workers and non-traditional industries to expand its membership? Or does a union OHS presence come with too much IR baggage for workers or employers to be comfortable? Could unions ever market on safety, be safety advocates in workplaces, without the IR component?

  2. The \”union safety effect\” is pretty well-documented. It is not just that unions have trained and resourced bodies on the ground – and union reps out-number most other workplace species with a dedicated interest in health and safety – but they also have the collective weight to turn a recognition of hazards at work into action to remedy those hazards. See http://www.hazards.org/unioneffect

  3. The \”union safety effect\” is pretty well-documented. It is not just that unions have trained and resourced bodies on the ground – and union reps out-number most other workplace species with a dedicated interest in health and safety – but they also have the collective weight to turn a recognition of hazards at work into action to remedy those hazards. See http://www.hazards.org/unioneffect

  4. The \”union safety effect\” is pretty well-documented. It is not just that unions have trained and resourced bodies on the ground – and union reps out-number most other workplace species with a dedicated interest in health and safety – but they also have the collective weight to turn a recognition of hazards at work into action to remedy those hazards. See http://www.hazards.org/unioneffect

  5. Many years (in the past) as an OH&S bureaucrat, and there were a few occasions when I\’d not be agreeing with a trade union position on an OH&S issue; it was relatively rare, but it did happen. But in the \”big picture\” it was obvious that trade unions got OH&S right more often than not.

    The fact is that trade union submissions on new legislation were commonly packed with well researched perspectives on the legislation. Trade unions are also much more likely to be switched on to safety problems that fall under everyone else\’s radar.

    I think Gilliard\’s comments (if reported accurately) are ungenerous and misplaced. Sure, the vigor of trade union lobbying makes the life of government regulators less comfy than it could be. But that\’s what a major stakeholder should do. From my perspective, Australia\’s OH&S performance would be a damn sight shabbier if it wasn\’t for the innovation and forward thinking of unions.

    I\’m not suggesting that everything on the union OH&S agenda should be treated as mandatory, but a bit of perspective on how valuable they are to improving OH&S is a good thing.

    1. Col

      I agree but the union movement needs to demonstrate its relevance to a broader membership base. Over the last few years the media, and opposition political parties in campaign advertising, shows unionism as being angry construction workers or bespectacled public servants. This is not the reality but is the dominant perspective.

      I know that fatigue management has originated from transport, occupational violence initiatives from education and nursing and manual handling from health care – all unionized industries but these achievements are not recognized outside of the OHS field or union movement, two niche sectors in Australian society.

      The Australian union movement needs a structural and leadership change to be (not totally) compatible with the new Labor government who is most likely to be in power for at least two terms.

      Kevin

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