Participation means unions
[Hazards 66, page 22, April - June 1999]
New US research shows that active union organisation
is the single factor most likely to lead to effective worker participation
on workplace health and safety.
Researchers who surveyed over 400 industrial hygienists
and safety engineers in New Jersey, US, concluded that "effective
strategies for involving workers appear to be conditional on a number
of variables, most importantly on worker activism and the effective
use of formal union negotiations."
The researchers, writing in the Journal of Public
Health Policy, add: "Findings are consistent with studies from
both the US and abroad which emphasise the role of unions in shaping
opportunities for effective worker participation." Union education
and training is also "a critical variable is achieving effective
arrangements for worker participation.
"In the US as in other countries, unions assist
workers in accessing and understanding health and safety information,
and collective bargaining agreements protect workers who refuse
abnormally dangerous assignments or confront management about their
health and safety concerns. Unions may also pay an important role
in triggering OSHA [the US government's safety enforcement agency]
The authors say an analysis of OSHA data found
"the probability of an inspection, duration of the inspection,
and size of penalties were found to be significantly higher at unionised
They warn that the changing labour market "including
dwindling levels of union membership, corporate downsizing and out-sourcing,
and the growing use of part-time and contract labour, are likely
to increasingly undermine the conditions necessary for effective
Michele Ochsner and Michael Greenberg. Factors
which support effective worker participation in health and safety:
A survey of New Jersey industrial hygienists and safety engineers.
Journal of Public Health Policy, volume 19, no.3, 1998.
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The recent issue of Hazards (see above)
is outstanding as usual. I particularly wanted to compliment you
on the article "Research for truth?"
As the director of a large occupational health
research project in the United States, I welcome your efforts to
keep the pressure on the "research community" to meet
the highest standards of accountability to our only legitimate constituency,
workers who risk their lives and their health everyday to produce
the goods and services that benefit us all.
A great deal of occupational research resources
are devoted to "counting the bodies" and publishing the
"big duh," information that workers at risk, and those
who make their livings putting them there, already know. But it
is important to document the problem and be able to match with good
science the propaganda of those who put profits above the workers'
However, the need to document the problem for the
political battlefield of regulation should not divert researchers
from their obligation to get results back to the field and into
the hands of workers and their representatives as soon as possible.
One means of doing this is participatory research.
Participatory research involves workers and unions in an equal partnership
with researchers from the initial research design through the data
gathering and analysis and onto dissemination and evaluation of
While "applied" research seeks to return
results to the field, it often reserves to the researcher the power
to decide where, when and how research will be "applied. The
"subjects" remain powerless in this method.
Participatory research goes beyond the idea of
"applied" and recognises that "results" are
not just the answers to the survey questions and data crunching.
Results means changing the field of study, that is, improving working
There is lots of research from community studies
around the world to prove the "big duh," that conditions
change more readily when those affected participate in the change.
It is time for occupational health and safety researchers
to apply that knowledge to changing conditions at work. Of course,
the participation of workers in improving their health and safety
conditions at work raises the spectre of workplace empowerment and
democracy and that is a scary proposition to the powerful. But who
cares. Our job as researchers is to make the workplace safe for
workers, not the world safe for owners.
At the time that they are approached by researchers
who want access to members and data, unions should demand a plan
for participation and dissemination of results. Researchers who
are worth working with will respond enthusiastically to these demands.
Those who treat workers as "rats in the maze" will also
never return with useful findings, so don't waste your time.
Occupational Health Program
of Work Environment
of Massachusetts Lowell
FAX: (978) 452-5711