OK Here's some data:
Herbert Abrams’ Short history of occupational health, published in the Journal
of Public Health Policy, says: “It is important to recognize that throughout the often
tragic history of worker health and disease, the worker played a primary role as the basis
of every significant improvement in legislation, factory inspection, compensation,
correction, and prevention.”
Abrams concludes: “Labour unrest, protests, strikes, lawsuits, and catastrophes were vital
catalysts in obtaining action. Organized labour has been the essential factor central to
most workplace health and safety improvements, from the industrial revolution to the
The Canadian Labour Congress cites a 1993 study done for the Canadian Ministries of
Labour which concludes that union-supported health and safety committees have a
significant "impact in reducing injury rates".
Later studies for the Ontario Workplace Health and Safety Agency “found that 78-79 per
cent of unionized workplaces reported high compliance with health and safety legislation
while only 54-61 per cent of non-unionized workplaces reported such compliance.”
But this isn’t a Canadian phenomenon. US academic Adam Seth Litwin, then with the London School of Economics,
concluded in a review last year of health and safety in UK workplaces that unions
dramatically improve safety in even the most hazardous workplaces.
A non-union office worker was, by Litwin’s calculations, 13 times more likely to suffer
an injury than was a closed-shop union worker on an industrial assembly line.
Even in the US, with a relatively low unionization level of 13 per cent, the effect can be
seen. A 1991 study, using US data, concluded that unions dramatically increased
enforcement of the Occupational Safety and Health Act in the manufacturing sector.
Unionized firms had a higher probability of having a health and safety inspection, and
their inspections tended to be more probing, as employees exercised their “walkaround
rights” — the right to accompany a government inspector during a workplace tour.
A 1998 paper provides more evidence of the union safety effect. Researchers who
surveyed over 400 industrial hygienists and safety engineers in New Jersey concluded
“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
The researchers, writing in the Journal of Public Health Policy, add: “Findings are
consistent with studies from both the US and abroad which emphasize the role of unions
in shaping opportunities for effective worker participation."