NOTE: This UE Steward has not been updated since it was first published over a decade ago. Some information may no longer be accurate.
- Safeguarding our members from potential workplace hazards
- Ensuring proper medical treatment/filing an accident report
- Warning against employer tricks to avoid workers compensation
- Negotiating a "light duty" policy
- Employer Obligation to Provide a Safe & Healthy Workplace
Your responsibility as a steward
In 1996, 6.2 million workers were injured on the job. That's 17,000 each day. In that same year, 6,112 were killed on the job, 154 every day! On top of those grisly facts is another: 50,000 workers die each year from occupational diseases.
As horrible as those figures are, they show progress. The number of workers killed on the job has dropped 67% since OSHA was started in 1970. The injury rate has dropped 31%. These figures are for the areas where OSHA was able to set some real standards - manufacturing and construction.
In the service industry, where the Republicans have held up the setting of OSHA standards, there has been no real decline in accidents since 1970. Congress has stopped the setting of any standards on repetitive motion injuries and these have increased in all areas of work, manufacturing, service and construction.
UE stewards have an important role to play in safeguarding our members from potential workplace hazards or when they get hurt on the job. Here are some pointers on what to look out for when a worker gets hurt on the job.
What Should a Steward Do
When a Worker Gets Hurt?
The steward must make sure that the worker gets the proper medical treatment, if any is needed.
In some places the steward has had to intervene because the employer wanted to have an injured worker drug tested before they received medical treatment. Medical treatment comes first.
The steward must also see that a proper accident report is filed when a worker gets hurt, even if no medical treatment is necessary.
Why? If a proper report is not filed and later on a worker begins to suffer because of a workplace accident, the worker may have a hard time proving that their problems are related to a workplace injury. Employers hate to have workplace accidents reported because often times their insurance rates are based upon reported accidents. If the employer acts like they are going to blame the worker for the accident, the steward should make a note of any potential witnesses.
The steward should see that the worker is not talked into applying for sickness and accident payments instead of workers compensation payments.
Many employers try to talk workers into taking S&A instead of workers compensation. In the long run it is cheaper for the employer. We have to remind workers that by taking S&A, they are cutting themselves off from future workers compensation payments if the injury proves to be long lasting or reoccurring.
NOTE: The employer is responsible for seeing that workers receive workers compensation in a timely manner. Don't let the boss claim that the "matter is out of my hands, go talk to the insurance company." Many times stewards have found that the boss was secretly telling the insurance company to hold up workers compensation payments in an effort to starve the employee back to work. Keep the pressure on the employer.
Health and Safety is a Grievable Issue
Employers have seized upon the idea of providing "light duty" for workers, mostly to get them back to work, and thereby lowering their reports of long-term injuries.
The employer should negotiate with the union over the establishment of any "light duty" policy.
Because of the employer attacks on workers compensation laws through out the country, many workers cannot afford to stay out on workers compensation. While we understand their desire to return to work quickly, a steward may also have to point out to workers the long-term damage that they might incur by returning to work too soon.
Where performing light duty jobs is not required by state law, the union should insist that it is the employee's doctor's decision that is the deciding opinion. Some employers have gone to the extreme of just providing rooms where injured workers sit all day, doing nothing. This is wrong. Often times what a worker needs to recover is rest, not just for the injured part of the body, but for the whole body. Sitting in a room doing nothing is not the same as being home resting.
The employer really is hoping that the worker will get so bored that he or she will beg to be allowed to return to work, even against the doctor's orders.
If the union negotiates a light duty policy with the employer, it will be the steward's job to see that it is equally applied. The union has the right to know who the employer wants to bring into work for light duty and who the employer lets stay home.
Many UE contracts have clauses that say that the employer must provide workers with a safe and healthy workplace. In these cases it is very clear what clause of the contract to cite when writing up a grievance about unsafe conditions. If the contract does not have a specific clause concerning health and safety, a grievance can always be filed under the Recognition Clause of the contract. A grievance can also be filed stating that the employer is violating the General Duty Clause of OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration). In some states workers are covered by state OSHA laws. They also have this General Duty Clause. The General duty Clause of OSHA simply states that it is the obligation of the employer to provide a safe and healthy workplace for all employees.
If a worker gets injured and complaints had been previously lodged about the problem with the employer, file a grievance. The union needs to have a written record on cases of employer negligence.
Can a Steward File a Grievance
If a Health and Safety Committee Exists?
Yes. Sometimes it is best to try to get the safety committee to take care of the problem, but the Union always has the right to file a grievance over health & safety problems. A grievance should be filed especially if the safety committee ignores the problem.
The stewards must educate and organize the membership to stop employers from paying bonuses or giving out prizes for not reporting accidents.
Employers continue to try to bribe workers to not report accidents. Most times they set up "safety bingo" games, where the prizes get larger every day or week there are no reported accidents. The idea is to get workers to put pressure on themselves and each other not to report accidents. Other employers offer cash bribes to each worker who has no accidents. The outcome is the same. They hope to bribe workers into not reporting or seeking treatment for workplace injuries. Our position should be that safety is not a game.
The steward may have to warn workers who are out from work about employer tricks to cut them off workers compensation.
Many employers routinely hire private investigators to spy on workers who are collecting workers compensation. They sneak around trying to take photos of workers to prove that their injuries or disease are fake. What should workers do to protect themselves? If a doctor prescribes light exercise for a worker who is out with a back injury, that worker should get it in writing from the doctor. These private spies love to take photos of workers doing light work, such as raking leaves. They then use these photos to disqualify the worker or have them fired.
What about part-time work? Many workers have part-time jobs. Tell them to get written clearance from their doctor that it is all right for them to work their part time job. The doctor's note should say that the part- time work is such that it will not aggravate the injury.
The steward may also have to let the worker know what their responsibilities are to the employer.
In most states workers have to regularly update the employer about their condition and any expected return to work date. The steward should let the injured worker know this, BUT also urge the worker to report to the union any harassment he or she receives when reporting in to the employer. The employee may also be required to see a doctor of the employer's choosing to confirm the employee's doctor's diagnosis. The steward should make sure that the union member knows this BUT also make sure that they know that they have the right to keep seeing a doctor of their own choosing.
NOTE: Workers Compensation laws are different in every state. Whenever possible each UE Local should have at least one person who is an "expert" on the exact laws.