A recently published, ten-year statistical analysis* of fatalities in trench work provides impressive evidence that union members work far more safely than non-union workers.

Between 1985 and 1995, 522 workers were killed in trench-related mishaps. Of these, 60 died working for union firms while 462 died in non-union employment The actual fatality rates (non-union companies employed about four times more workers than union firms) were 5.71 per million employees for union firms and 11.80 per million for non-union.

The data were gathered by researchers whose main focus was on the impact of a new OSHA trenching regulation that became effective in January, 1990. OSHA regulatory efforts are often attacked as ineffective, and researchers hoped to shed light on this subject by investigating fatalities in the five-year periods before and after adoption of the new standard.

The adoption of the new standard resulted in a 50 percent reduction in trench-related fatalities in union and non-union companies, alike. In the five years before the new standard, the fatality rate was 13.5 per million workers per year, but that dropped to 6.8 per million per year for the five years after adoption. The decline was consistent across all construction companies, regardless of size. In contrast, during the same period, the decline in all other causes of workplace fatalities was only 27 percent.

The researchers concluded, “This study provides evidence that a targeted inspection program along with revision of a previously ambiguous consensus standard is effective in reducing fatal workplace injury.”

Because they were investigating the impact of OSHA standards on fatalities, the researchers drew no conclusions from the divergence in fatalities at union and non-union firms.

However, Scott Schneider, the Director of the Occupational Safety and Health Division at the LHSFNA, focused on this point as he reviewed the report. “LIUNA members and contractors should take heart from this new study. It shows that the emphasis we have placed on safety training of members and the work of our Fund has paid off. Union jobs are safer, and that provides a competitive edge for our contractors through lower comp costs and less lost productivity. Also, this study shows that OSHA standards are not the enemy. Instead, they provide a level playing field for safety conscious contractors and help save lives.”

* Suruda A, Whitaker B, Bloswick D, Philips P, Sesek R, Impact of the OSHA Trench and Evacuation Standard on Fatal Injury in the Construction Industry, Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2002; 44:902-905.

[Steve Clark]