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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] protections."

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 worksites."

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 worker participation."

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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Dear Hazards

Participatory research

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' health.

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 results.

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 conditions.

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.

Susan Moir

Construction Occupational Health Program
Department of Work Environment
University of Massachusetts Lowell
1 University Avenue
Lowell, MA 01854

TEL: (978) 934-3329
FAX: (978) 452-5711

to diyresearch

Dear Hazards: A letter from Susan Moir of the Construction Occupational Helath Project on the value of participatory research. Click here




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