The struggle for a healthy and safe workplace is fundamental to the labor movement. It was one of our earliest major demands alongside higher pay and a shorter work week. It is every union’s obligation to encourage and, if necessary, force the boss to correct dangerous situations. Our goal, as a union, is to enforce being able to get through a shift safely and making it home.
Workers can spend up to half of their day in the workplace, and workplaces impact health and well-being. It benefits both employers and employees if workplaces are safe and support healthy behavior patterns. A healthy workplace is more than just safe; it considers health practices, the physical work environment, the psychosocial environment, and is supportive of healthy eating and physical activity. Natural light, ergonomics, green space, noise, food choices, exercise, commuting, fairness and flexibility are all important to employees. Employers who provide healthier options at the workplace see benefits such as reduced insurance costs and absenteeism, along with increased job satisfaction, morale and productivity.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “while employers have a responsibility to provide a safe and hazard-free workplace, they also have abundant opportunities to promote individual health and foster a healthy work environment.” The workplace can influence healthier social norms. Healthy workplaces support healthy eating and regular physical activity which can prevent obesity and chronic diseases. Furthermore, workplaces can improve their employees’ knowledge of healthier lifestyle choices and be a place for preventative health screenings.
Prior to the passage of the Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) in 1970, those lacking a union contract containing strong health and safety language had little to no protection. OSHA was a great step forward, but left out many workers, including independent contractors and public-sector employees on the state and local level. While some states have adopted safety and health legislation to cover their public employees, many states have adopted no protections at all and others have very little enforcement of their own rules. This results in situations where public-sector workers have been severely injured or even died on the job with no penalties faced by their employers. In addition, the Act remains broken and underfunded, with infrequent inspections and nominal fines.
There were 5,190 fatal work injuries recorded in the U.S. in 2021, an 8.9 percent increase from 2020. Out of this total, 2,258 (47 percent) were in either transportation and material moving occupations or construction and extraction occupations.
Health and safety was a key issue for the 250 workers at the Refresco bottling plant in Wharton, New Jersey, who now make up UE Local 115. Workers walked out in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic after their employer failed to take adequate precautions to protect their lives. After organizing with UE, the workers highlighted dangerous conditions, including being forced to work multiple machines simultaneously, wet floors, and fires on the shop floor. Their employer made the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health’s 2022 “Dirty Dozen” list of unsafe employers who put workers, families and communities at risk, and National COSH provided important support for their struggle. Local 115’s first contract, ratified in June 2023, includes strong health and safety protections.
Most workers and most UE members no longer work on a factory floor. Workers in the service industry have workplace safety issues which are not heavily regulated by OSHA, even if the workers themselves are nominally covered. Office workers often suffer from repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome, yet there are no ergonomics standards established by the federal government. Workers in retail, education, health care, and social services often have to deal with customers, students, or patients who threaten their physical safety, yet OSHA has largely been silent on establishing best-practice procedures to deal with these hazards. Female workers, workers of color, LGBTQ+ workers, and differently-abled workers all have different needs which should be addressed to ensure equity in workplace safety.
Workers with differing abilities also have a right to a healthy and safe workplace. Although much progress has been made since the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), much remains to be done. Public access, workplace accommodation, accessible transit, legislative representation, access to education and vocational training, and job opportunity should be a priority of the labor movement as much as any other front on the fight for worker- and human rights. Fellow workers, regardless of circumstance or ability, deserve full access to society and opportunity, and the dignity of labor.
While only some of the jobs our members perform are recognized as being dangerous, all of us can be exposed to situations which threaten our safety and impact our health. Our obligation is to look after the health and well-being of our fellow workers through the collective action of our union. But we also must force legislators to adequately protect working people through a strengthening of our nation's health and safety laws.
THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED THAT THIS 78th UE CONVENTION:
- Calls on locals to:
- Make health and safety a top priority both during and outside of contract negotiations;
- Set up strong independent health and safety committees, and ensure training on health and safety for their members;
- Exercise their right to accompany OSHA inspectors on workplace visits;
- Contact the national union before becoming involved with Voluntary Protection Programs (VPP);
- Engage the membership in aggressive struggle to address hazards in the workplace;
- Support local labor-initiated Committees on Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) groups;
- Demand their employers provide access to paid time off for testing and quarantine for all reportable diseases as defined by the CDC, with no loss of sick time;
- Demands Congress expand OSHA to include:
- Coverage for all workers, including those in the public sector and federal contractors;
- Significant rulemaking regarding safe working procedures when dealing with risk of attack from patients, students, customers, or other individuals;
- A better funded inspection process, which includes unannounced and unrestricted inspections;
- Sharply increased penalties on employers, including punitive damages and blacklisting from government contracting opportunities;
- Prosecution of bosses for conditions which lead to death or severe injury on the job;
- Supports strengthening workers’ compensation laws in all states, with improved provisions on injuries sustained from physical attacks in the workplace;
- Opposes any attempt to further restrict the rights of workers to sue their employers over job-related injuries, and unsafe conditions;
- Demands the Biden Administration develop a permanent OSHA standard related to contagious diseases;
- Demands Congress strengthen the Americans with Disabilities Act.