December 20, 2012 Celeste Monforton, DrPH, MPH 6Comment

Last week, my home State of Michigan became the 24th one to enact “right-to-work” legislation.   I’m sure the great labor leader Walter Reuther (1907-1970) rolled over in his grave when Michigan Governor Rick Snyder signed the anti-union bill into law.

Workers coming together to negotiate for better wages, benefits and working conditions created the middle class in America.  Belonging to a union means workers can be more secure that they won’t be fired arbitrarily, and have more power to receive skills training and guard against unsafe working conditions.  This latter point is an underlying theme in a recently published study by Hester Lipscomb, PhD and colleagues with Duke University Medical Center’s Division of Occupational & Environmental Medicine.  The researchers set out to assess the relationship between “carrot” or “stick” safety programs and reporting of work-related injuries.  The research involved an anonymous survey of 1,020 apprentice carpenters in training schools in St. Louis, Chicago and southern Illinois.  The median age of the participants was 26 years old and median tenure with their current employer was 11 months.

Lipscomb’s team had access to the study participants because of a longstanding collaboration with the United Brotherhood of Carpenters (UBC) and a joint interest in examining factors associated with worker safety and injury prevention.  The response rate to the survey was an impressive 85%.  Obviously, the apprentice carpenter participants believed they could candidly report their experiences without fear of reprisal from their employer.  It’s hard for me to imagine how a researcher would be able to connect so successfully with such a large set of workers if not for the union’s participation.  I’ll add this—contributing to public health research—-as another benefit of labor unions.   The lead author Hester Lipscomb, PhD, seems to agree:

“The UBC is to be commended for embracing ethical research practices that allowed collection of such data.  Over the last decade, this direct access to workers has allowed us to learn a lot about the challenges workers face as they build our country.”

The carpenter apprentices’ experiences tell us that production pressure and the “speed of work” influences safety on construction sites.  The authors note that these were the factors most often reported by the 157 respondents who also provided written comments on the survey.  The apprentices wrote, for example:

“Safety goes out the window when a rush is put on us.”

“The biggest reason injuries occur in my observation is because workers sacrifice common safety precautions for the sake of time… usually to please the foreman or superintendent.”

“I think it should be a big deal to let every contractor and foremen know that they should slow down on the jobsite and I mean work wise. They don’t care about safety because they are too worried on getting things done too fast.”

“It’s always go-go-go. No one cares about us as long as we make hours. If you try to be safe it takes too much time, they think. Companies and contractors need to allow more hours in the bids for time to be safe.”

“They want it faster and if you are injured, go home and don’t report it. There are a lot of other guys in line to replace you.”

With these frank comments from union carpenters—and the protections that go along with being in a labor organization—I can only imagine what it’s like for non-union workers.  The carpenters’ comments about injuries are not any more comforting:

“If you get hurt and report it you will be replaced.”

“With my company, people are afraid to report injuries even when they get hurt because they will lose their jobs. Not immediately, but in like 2 or 3 months when it blows over, you’re fired.”

“Injuries label employees as accident prone and employers will do what they can to reduce your hours and/or terminate an employee using whatever reason they can.”

“From experience with many companies, if you get hurt you’re looking for a new job.”

“We do not report injuries because we’re threatened with discipline most of the time.”

“The term “Fired before you hit the ground” is used too much in our industry.”

“I worked for a company that had to maintain a 0% accident policy to be able to keep their contract with a major company. I got the impression, which was strongly implied, if I got hurt I was no longer employed.”

“Working my last job I felt that reporting injury would result in lay off. Most people having (a) lost time injury were laid off when they returned to work. Made workers scared to report injuries.”

All this from the union apprentices.  I’ve no doubt that amplified versions of the same (and worse) would be offered to researchers if they could connect with 1,000 non-union carpenters who weren’t afraid to speak their minds.

“We do not want to suggest that the problems we raise are unique to union carpenters,” Professor Lipscomb told me.   “We do not believe that to be the case and we suspect these problems are wide spread across the construction industry — unionized and not.  In fact, the vulnerability expressed by these apprentices may be even more profound among other segments of the construction workforce including immigrants and non-union workers.”

She added:

“We were astonished at what we saw in a unionized workforce because these are workers who have advocacy outlets that do not exist to other workers.   The findings reflect a very serious concern about health and safety of workers.  If we do not learn about the difficult  issues faced by workers, nothing will be done to remedy them.  Workers won’t feel supported and they will continue to feel vulnerable.”

This study reminds me of the iceberg analogy.  What Lipscomb and her colleagues report is the small tip of the iceberg.  We see it—it is open to the light of day because of the United Brotherhood of Carpenters’ participation in the research.  The really scary part is the majority of the workforce—the non-union, immigrant, day laborer and other vulnerable individuals—-are on that huge underwater part of the iceberg.   We know it’s a lot darker and colder than the tip of the iceberg, the only question is: “how much?”


6 thoughts on “Safety experiences of union carpenters, imagine what it’s like for the rest of them

  1. Hester Lipscomb, PhD and colleagues’ original article that reported their results read like a Union-bashing free-for-all.

    Thank you for putting things in perspective.

  2. Wow, I read the paper numerous times and “union bashing” never came to mind. As I write, it’s a frank presentation of the pressure on workers to perform even if it means putting their safety and job security at risk. As my title says, if these serious problems exist for union workers, it’s disturbing to imagine the situation for non-union workers.

  3. Sorry that anyone thought the manuscript was meant to be union bashing as that was not the intent! I greatly appreciate the collaboration I have had for years with the union; they play an important role in worker safety and health and they have facilitated research efforts. Without the union’s interest in their membership, we would have no way of learning about these concerns. We quoted comments directly from apprentice carpenters – they were often blunt and to the point – and their frankness was surprising to me. They came from 15% of respondents who offered comments to a final question that simply asked if there were things we should be aware of that influence safety on construction jobsites or the reporting of work-related injuries. I could not ignore their responses. They present evidence that pressures to perform are tremendous in the current work environment and that at times they translate to fear of reporting work-related injuries—even among union members. We need to recognize the problem to address it appropriately, and I thank the carpenters for their involvement in that process! Ignoring it does not help productivity in the industry or safety of workers.

  4. Union bashing??? I guess that this type of interpretation can only come from folks who may have their heads in the sand!!! This study confirms what we learned over 15 y ago in a study in New England, also supported by unions, especially the UBC. There is nothing said by the apprentices in this great study that were not also said by union representatives a long time ago, many of whom were senior leaders of construction unions in New England. It is clear to those who are familiar with construction work environments that these “production first” pressures have existed for decades now. Following what I found in other sectors of the across the board neoliberal economy that we live in since the 1980s, construction projects follow neoliberal principles and we should name them as neoliberal construction sites whenever we see them. Allternatives do exist but are few and far between. Another construction industry is possible and necessary!!!

  5. As a union carpenter since 1976 this article rings true. One aspect not covered is the mixed messages we get from the general contractors due to pressures from insurance companies. They stress safety but put the onus on the rank and file worker. Unsafe conditions, if due to general contractor negligence, is mostly ignored (lighting, holes in floor, rushed schedules putting too many guys working together, etc). Responsibility is passed down to subs and then onto the shoulders of the workers. There are countless examples.
    It has always been that way but, not surprisingly, since the beginning of the depression (and it is one in construction) the speed up has intensified along with the shirking of responsibility for safety by the top, if it will cost them money.

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