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Health and Safety Committees

Involving Workers in Prevention

Inadequate protection for workers against employer retaliation, incomplete training on workplace hazards, difficulty stopping dangerous work, and myriad other problems that prevent workers from having safe and healthful work can all be linked to the large power disparity between workers and their employers. That imbalance relates to the "representation/participation gap" — that is, the difference between the worker-management relationship that workers want and the relationship that they actually experience on the job. One measure of the gap is the oft-cited decline in private-sector union participation, which has dropped from a high of about one-third of the private workforce in 1950 to less than 10 percent today.

What’s the Solution?

Joint labor-management health and safety committees can give workers a strong voice in the occupational health and safety policies at their workplaces. In every state, the state legislature can adopt legislation--some already have--requiring employers to establish health and safety committees. Even without legislation, committees can be established through a union contract or by collective action of a group of workers.

The basic concept of a health and safety committee is simple: A select group of non-management workers at each worksite sits on a formal committee, alongside an equal or smaller number of management-selected representatives. Committee members meet regularly to discuss health and safety issues, including hazards related to equipment and chemicals, the effect of pace and duration of work on health and safety, and the workers' education and training needs. Committee members might conduct regular inspections or safety audits, review "close calls" (when injuries and fatalities are narrowly avoided) and incident reports, or accompany occupational health and safety agency officials during an inspection.

Such efforts can play an important role in ensuring that hazards are identified and corrected. Committees can also make formal recommendations on work practices and engineering controls, and help implement whistleblower protections and workers' rights to refuse dangerous work. Worker involvement in health and safety policy decisions builds on workers’ expertise and knowledge and promotes localized, worksite-based problem solving.

Read the full text on effective joint labor-management health and safety committees from our Winning Safer Workplaces manual.

Additional Resources for Workers and Advocates

The Representation/Participation Gap. Read more about the difference between what workers want and what they actually experience in this excerpt from the book, What Workers Want (2d ed., 2006), by Richard B. Freeman and Joel Rogers.

Benefits of Health and Safety Committees. To read more about the benefits of committees for worker health and safety and labor-management relations check out this 1994 law review article by Gregory R. Watchman, Safe and Sound: The Case for Safety and Health Committees under OSHA and the NLRA.

Legal Constraints to Committee Formation. The most serious issue standing in the way of state laws requiring health and safety committees is the potential conflict with the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Advocates who are considering pursuing a campaign to establish health and safety committees should consult with an NLRA expert. Read a short primer on this issue excerpted from the Occupational Safety and Health Law (3rd. Ed.) legal treatise, sponsored by the American Bar Association and published by Bloomberg BNA.

U.S. Map: Health and Safety Committees

Challenges to Establishing an Effective Committee. Read about the challenges to ensuring joint labor-management committees have substantial authority to make change in this 1991 report by Ruth Ruttenberg, prepared for the U.S. Department of Labor: The Role of Labor-Management Committee in Safeguarding Worker Safety and Health. Another challenge may be allowing too much flexibility in the program, according to a 2008 evaluation of Pennsylvania’s Certified Safety Committee Program conducted by the Rand Center for Health and Safety in the Workplace. For a general overview of the reasons why some joint labor-management committees are ineffective, check out this article by Charley Richardson, How to ‘Act like a Union’ on a Labor-Management Committee (Aug. 1, 2014).

Legislative Proposals in the U.S. Congress. In the early 1990s, members of the U.S. Congress introduced two bills (H.R. 3160 and H.R. 1280) that would have amended the OSH Act to require employers with 11 or more employees to form health and safety committees. The bills provide a useful example of legislative language that sets the basic parameters for health and safety committees that would be effective and would fit within the constraints of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).

Health and Safety Committees Abroad. U.S. advocates may want to look at resources developed by worker centers and advocacy groups in other countries with long-standing health and safety committee mandates, such as Canada. Safe Work Manitoba has excellent manuals and guides for workers and their representatives on setting up and participating in joint labor-management committees (and much more). Check out: Setting up a Workplace Safety and Health Committee (or Worker Representative) and this comprehensive manual, Seeing the Workplace with New Eyes: A Self-Help Guide for Workplace Safety & Health Committees and Workplace Safety & Health Representatives, by Safe Work Manitoba and the New Eyes Project.

Urging State Legislatures to Take Action. For ideas about legislative changes to propose in your state, consider the kinds of recommendations and draft language included in this comprehensive WorkSafe! report from 1999 calling California Governor Gray Davis and the California Legislature to take action to protect workers in their state. Advocates may also want to look at legislative and regulatory language from other states with strong joint labor-management committee mandates as a starting point. In addition to health and safety committees, other types of committees may provide a useful comparison. For example, New York’s Public Employer Workplace Violence Prevention Law mandates joint labor-management committees and includes strong provisions requiring union involvement.

Sample Contract Language and Fact Sheets. Advocates may also find successful models for health and safety committees where they were created without a statutory mandate. For instance, many collective bargaining agreements have health and safety committee requirements that were designed by unions’ OHS experts. Check out this Worksafe! Fact Sheet for sample contract language on the purpose, rights, structure, and training of a joint labor-management committee and this Worksafe! Fact Sheet about the union activist’s role on health and safety committees. Also, for information on legal issues concerning union liability and a suggested course of action, here’s an excellent fact sheet on the Duty of Fair Representation by the Communications Workers of America.

Using Labor-Management Committee to Target Ergonomic Hazards. Here’s a sample outline of a joint labor-management program that includes ergonomics, prepared by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) in January 2015. The outline is a useful starting point that could be expanded on or changed to suit a particular facility.

Hazard/Risk Mapping. One way to promote workers’ voices in identifying and resolving health and safety hazards is for the joint labor-management committee to evaluate potential problem areas identified by employees in hazard/risk mapping exercises. Check out an example of ergonomic risk mapping developed by Jay Herzmark of Safe Work Washington (2015).

Connecting to Other Policy Reforms. Effective joint-labor management health and safety committees are closely related to job-specific training programs, as they are both part of a comprehensive occupational and safety management system, sometimes referred to as an injury and illness prevention program (I2P2). Thirty-four states either require employers to establish occupational health and safety management systems or have guidelines that encourage them. Fed-OSHA maintains a website with links to the programs that may be a useful resource for advocates interested in pursuing reforms related to health and safety committees or improved education and training requirements. 

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