Organizing Health and Safety Committees

Health and safety committees can be an effective vehicle for addressing bad work conditions. But unions need to organize, educate and be prepared to take action if they want to see their problems addressed. Unions can't rely only on a joint management-union committee to address health and safety problems. Setting up a union health and safety committee is important not only for addressing health and safety problems but as an effective organizing tool.

The purpose of the Local Union Committee

Through a union health and safety committee the union can be sure that they can set their own priorities and develop a strategy in case management does not respond to these concerns within a reasonable timeframe. The role of the committee is to:

  • Respond to the concerns of workers,
  • Initiate action on hazards it identifies,
  • Educate rank and file members to be able to identify health and safety hazards, to know the steps they should take to see that they're addressed,
  • Work with shop stewards to represent workers with health and safety grievances.

Who should be on the committee?

The committee should include representatives from each of the work areas and from all shifts. This will help ensure that all workers' concerns are heard. Committee members should be those who they are concerned about health and safety, who are willing to learn more about it, and who are willing to have good communication with the workers they represent.
<43>The Functions of a Local Committee

The functions of the committee should be as wide and as far-reaching as is practical. Some of the major functions of local committees should include the following:

  • Regular inspection of the workplace to identify safety and health hazards.
  • Access to information on the hazards of the workplace.
  • Access to other relevant information such as medical test, accident rates, monitoring results, etc.
  • Filing for and following up on OSHA complaints.
  • The handling of safety and health grievances.
  • The education of the membership and the facilities to carry this out.
  • Access to suitable independent training on safety and health.
  • Involvement in the planning of the workplace that will affect safety and health.
  • Participation in any monitoring of workplace conditions or any medical surveillance of the membership.
  • The investigation of accidents and accident prevention.
  • Some of these functions will be agreed to by managment while others may well have to be fought for.

The Joint Labor/Management Committee

Many unions have been suspicious of joint health and safety committees. This suspicion has arisen out of management's lack of genuine concern for the health of its workers in the past. Too often the joint committee has been used as a device to control safety and health issues rather than solve them. They have become ineffectual, do-nothing committees.

In dealing with safety and health issues, local unions are often presented with a dilemma. They are on the one hand aware of the dangers of a joint committee, but often reliant upon them to get things done. They are aware that some issues can be dealt with by consensus although many will only be resolved by conflict. If the local union decides that a joint committee is useful despite its limitations then there are certain basic principles that should be established to ensure the joint committee is effective.

How effective is your joint health and safety committee?

  • Does the union have at least an equal number of members as management?
  • Does the union have the sole right to appoint the union side of the committee?
  • Does the position of chairperson rotate between management and union?
  • Are the members of management senior enough to make real decisions that cost money?
  • Can the committee make decisions and put them into effect?
  • Does the union have a major say in the agenda and deciding priorities?
  • Can the committee make unannounced inspections of the workplace.
  • Is there any method of monitoring the effectiveness of the committee in dealing with the issues raised by the union?
  • Does the committee have access to the relevant information on safety and health kept by the company (medical records, monitoring, hazardous materials, etc.)?
  • Do committee members have the right to take samples in the plant and carry out simple monitoring?
  • Do union committee members receive lost time pay for carrying out their functions and for receiving adequate independent training?
  • Are there facilities provided for the union side of the committee to meet separately?

Only if the majority of these questions are answered in YES will there be a genuine power sharing of responsibility for safety and health between management and union.

If the answer is no to any of the above, you can use your union-based committee to develop a strategy for pushing for changes. In the event that you can't get all of the changes you think are important, you can refuse to participate – but some unions don't want to give the company the opportunity to say that you are not concerned about health and safety. You can stay on the joint committee, but use your union committee to set your own groundrules – such as what is a reasonable period of time for responding to a health and safety problem before the union takes further action and what type of action will be taken. Action can range from pursuing grievance procedures to filing an OSHA complaint (or threatening to do so) or organizing media attention, if the violations are serious.

Safety Committees and Contract Language

Whenever possible, the language should include rights to the independent local union committee. If a joint committee is agreed upon, then unions should seek to include the questions raised in number 4 (above). Remember that the rights that you have in your basic contract can often be added to by local agreement. The precise structure and function of a committee is usually a matter of local agreement. Whenever possible local unions should seek to extend their basic contract rights at the local level.

Maintaining Union Strength

Health and safety issues should not been seen as the sole concern of the safety and health committee. They will also be the concern of the membership, and stewards who represent them. Many of the decisions made by the bargaining committee will affect safety and health issues. It is important, therefore, that there is effective coordination between the stewards, the safety committee and the bargaining committee to ensure that the union pulls together. A union that appears divided to management is only demonstrating its weaknesses. Increasingly the international departments are also providing advice and service to their locals.

Keeping the Membership Informed

One of the most important concerns of any union safety and health committee must be to keep the membership fully informed and educated. Such devices as regular newsletters, shop meetings, published minutes, and personal contact will be necessary to ensure this is done. Remember that there are dangers of the union committee people being seen as enforcers of unpopular measures rather than representatives looking after the interests of the membership. Which view is taken will often depend upon the efforts of the committee to involve the membership in the issues.