What Will The Rising Tide Against Organized Labor Mean For Workplace Safety?

Organized labor world-wide is losing the battle for public opinion.  Governors in Ohio, New Jersey, and Wisconsin have openly stated their intentions to change the law to weaken the rights of workers toward collective bargaining. Many safety professionals take great pleasure in the seeming waning influence of organized labor; those that do are wrong.

Organized labor stood at the forefront for the fight for worker safety.  At the risk of sounding melodramatic, many protections for workplace safety were forged in the blood and misery of early organizing efforts.  But what does one have to do with the other? It’s not like organized labor is the reason  that workplace safety regulations exist, or is it?

As recently as six months ago a national politician in the UK openly asked publicly if the laws in his country that held managers and business owners liable for workplace injuries weren’t too over reaching, and many governments are reconsidering safety laws and wondering if these laws don’t, in fact, make it too hard to do business.

Somewhere in this mix seems to be the idea that because it is so expensive to injure workers that government’s had, in these tough times, roll back some of these protections in favor of lower fines, and less severe penalties for work place safety violations.

I want to be clear, my intent is neither to support nor oppose organized labor, rather, I hope to raise awareness among safety professionals that these attacks on workers’ rights to organize and collectively bargain, if successful, will have a profound detriment on worker safety world-wide.

I completely understand the argument that worker injuries are expensive, inefficient, and undesirable, but easing these restrictions and lessening the penalties for non-compliance is not the answer.  In light of the mining disasters, oil and gas deaths (and unprecedented environmental fallout) and even the response to the Japanese nuclear plant one would think that worker safety would become more of a priority not less so.  But in a climate where soaring unemployment and sluggish recover have people looking at their neighbors and asking if they don’t perhaps make too much money, it’s easy to equate workplace safety with job losses and generate public support for safety rollbacks.

Safety professionals and unions have long had a love-hate relationship.  Many safety professionals resent what they categorize as unwarranted defense of unsafe behaviors by organized labor while many safety representatives dismiss their management counterparts as puppets  for the company.  In many cases, neither side can get past their differences and the safety committee meetings degrade into gripe sessions.

And we need to face facts, in many workplaces the cost of sustaining safety incentive programs, safety observations, and dozens of safety meetings a month have made the cost of prevention disproportionate with the risk of worker injuries.  And yet, if businesses suggest abandoning safety bonuses or exploring low cost alternatives to existing safety programs they are accused of not caring about worker safety or (shudder) caring more about profits than they do about human life.

The reality is this problem is big, and promises to get bigger.  The 1990s and millennial decade saw unprecedented growth in safety prevention as a business.  As businesses realized they had to reduce the cost of injuries a cottage industry of safety providers sprang up seemingly overnight.  In flush times, safety professionals were able to implement safety prevention programs that added heads, and made more and more demands on the resources of the organization.

The danger goes deeper than companies feeling the financial pinch and unions fighting on other fronts.  Cut backs in the enforcement arms of regulatory agencies make it less likely that companies that openly defy the law are far less likely to be found out and almost certain to avoid any meaningful punishment.

So what’s the answer?

For starters, safety professionals, both union and management, need to look for ways to do less with more.  Incentive programs that offer cash and prizes for workers not getting hurt (or more likely reporting injuries) need to be scrapped.  As one manufacturing vice president once said to me, “I refuse to pay extra for something everyone should do intuitively” and as one union bargaining chair put it, “they think we’re stupid and careless.  For them to pay a bonus for not injuring workers is insulting to us.”  But discontinuing a financial incentive when so many people are struggling  for every nickle is likely to be met with fierce resistance.

Next, take down the safety posters.  A cutsie safety poster has never saved a life, and while children’s poster-contests may be popular and tug at the heart strings, it’s not likely that someone who disregards safety rules will suddenly be shocked into responsibility because of a crayon drawing.

And finally, we need to recognize the costs associated with watching workers complete tasks and telling them to work more safely.  Programs that require supervisors to spend significant time observing workers are inefficient.

That’s not to say that we should concede the fight and give up trying to protect workers, but we need to be pragmatic and sensible.  Safety professionals of all stripes need to take a hard look at the efficacy, cost, and value of the way they are doing business and look for ways that not only protect workers, but lower operating costs (like reducing downtime, employee turnover, or defects) and increase overall workplace efficiency.

There are a lot of people counting on us.  Yes, hurting workers is expensive, so we need to stop doing it.  But the answer can never be discount the penalties for skirting the laws or openly flouting worker protections.  If safety professionals don’t step up to this fight, who will?

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