One of the most effective tools that a union can use to improve the safety of the workplace is the union safety and health committee. Often, union members participate as part of a joint labor-management safety and health committee. This can be one way to get action on safety and health problems in your workplace. A local union can also form their own safety and health committee which acts independently of the joint committee. If a joint committee doesn’t exist, then the union committee may be the only structure available to workers to improve safety in the workplace. Either way, there are certain rights provided to workers and unions under the OSHAct that members of safety and health committees can exercise in carrying out their activities. Other rights may have to be negotiated through contract language with the employer.
Listed below are steps for a union safety and health committee to follow to effectively address safety and health hazards.
Step 1 – Evaluate the workplace for hazards – Take an inventory
Evaluating the workplace for hazards will involve the use of many different tools, including regular inspections; identifying toxic or hazardous materials; examination of injury and illness records/reports; examination of safety and health records and documents; and talking and listening to workers regarding safety and health complaints and concerns. The following tools can be used to take an inventory of and identify safety and health problems in your workplace.
a.) Set your goals.
Set your goals, priorities and tasks. What needs to be accomplished and how? Who will be assigned to the tasks? How long will it take? The answers to these questions will depend somewhat on the nature of your workplace.
b.) Conduct regular workplace inspections or walkarounds.
Determine how and how often the inspections will be conducted. Who will participate? Will the entire workplace be inspected on each walk around or will it focus on one specific area and move on to a different area the next time? How the inspections are conducted will depend upon several factors, including:
- The size of the workplace;
- The number of employees;
- Whether there is a union-only safety and health committee or just a joint labor-management committee; and
- The hazards in the workplace.
In most cases, contract language will have to be negotiated to give workers and union members the right to conduct workplace inspections.
c.) Use a checklist.
Use the sample checklist in this workbook to serve as a guide for the inspection. Customize the checklist to fit the workplace. Breaking the checklist down by department may make it easier to use.
d.) Involve department union stewards.
Make sure the stewards know about the committee’s efforts. The union stewards should be involved in letting you know what problems are out there.
e.) Involve key workers.
Make a risk map or a hazard map of the workplace. Mapping is a way for the union and the safety and health committee to get information about health and safety problems from the workers who know their work areas and the workplace hazards. Workers from different areas of the plant can get together, draw a map or floor plan of their work area/workplace, and identify the hazards in each of their areas. Using the maps, workers can also identify possible controls. The map creates a document that can be used to track which hazards have been fixed and which ones are still being worked on.
f.) Keep detailed notes.
Keep detailed notes of all observations. Write down what is seen, heard and smelled. Be sure and write down the date of your inspection. Record the hazard, where the hazard is located, who the hazard could hurt and how many workers could be affected by the hazard. If the hazard is a health hazard, write down when it occurs (daily or at special times). Write down what management says and does about the hazards. Work with the health and safety committee to create a customized form to use for these observations.
g.) Look at the documents that already exist.
Evaluate documents maintained by the company. OSHA gives workers and their representatives the right to obtain and look at many documents that can help identify hazards and help support your inspection findings. Those documents include:
Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS)
Workers have the right to request copies of MSDS of chemicals that may be hazardous to their health. For example, the MSDS for a cleaning product provides the name(s) of the chemical ingredients, the hazards associated with these chemicals, the permissible exposure limits (PELs) and PPE to be worn when using the product.
OSHA 300 Log
The OSHA 300 Log is the record maintained by the employer of recordable injuries and illnesses that occur on the job. The full log contains the department and job of the worker, a description of the injury or illness, and the number of lost days or restricted days that occurred as a result of the injury or illness. Employees, employee representatives, and former employees have a right to obtain a copy of the log. The OSHA 300 Log must be maintained for five years. To obtain a copy of the OSHA 300 Log, please visit www.osha.gov/recordkeeping/new-osha300form1-1-04.xls.
Monitoring or exposure records for chemical hazards or noise
These are the results of tests conducted by the employer to measure worker exposure to hazards such as noise and chemicals. These records are available to workers and the union under OSHA’s Access to Employee and Medical Records Standard. They can be used by the safety committee to identify workers who may be exposed to dangerous levels of noise or chemicals. For example, if the records identify workers who are exposed to noise levels above 85 decibels (dBA), as an eight hour time-weighted average, the safety committee can then make sure that these workers are provided the protections required under the OSHA Noise Standard.
Medical records maintained by the employer
Employees and former employees can obtain access to their own medical records that are maintained by the employer. These records include the results of any medical testing conducted by the employer to monitor exposure to hazards. An example of a medical record is the hearing test conducted by the employer to measure the effects of overexposure to noise on hearing ability. The union can obtain information from the employee medical records if the union has been given permission by the employee in writing.
Step 2. Prioritize and Document!
A lot of information will be collected as a result of these activities, including hazards and issues that need to be addressed and fixed. Taking all of these issues to management at one time may result in nothing getting fixed or prioritized. A way to prioritize hazards is ask the following questions:
Q1: Is it serious? Which problems are most serious or pose the most immediate danger?
Q2: Is it high profile? Are there a lot of workers who are or would be affected by the hazard? Using member surveys can help answer this question because often workers will not speak up on their own about their safety and health concerns.
Q3: Is it winnable or doable? Which problems can be corrected quickly with little effort or at least cost? One important way to build confidence among committee members is to get a series of small victories. This also helps get the attention of management, and gains the support and enthusiasm of the membership.
Document the hazard that needs to be corrected
Interview affected workers and the department steward; check the OSHA standard if there is one; describe the processes, materials, equipment or substances involved, and the hazard.
The committee must prioritize the list of hazards and make sure they are well documented before moving on to the next step.
Step 3. Bring the problem to the attention of management
If the hazard poses an immediate danger to workers, then the hazard must be brought to management’s attention immediately so the situation can be corrected as soon as possible. If the hazard is minor and can be easily and quickly fixed, then bringing it to the attention of a supervisor may be the best way to handle the situation.
Otherwise, the committee needs to put the item on the agenda for the joint labor/management committee to discuss and consider. A time line should be developed for correction.
Step 4. Review your contract language if the hazards are not corrected in a timely manner
If the hazard is not corrected by management or the joint labor/management safety committee in a timely manner, look at the contract to see if there is language under which a grievance for an unsafe or unhealthful condition can be filed. Having language in the contract which states that employers will comply with OSHA regulations, both state and Federal, allows unions to grieve specific unsafe conditions. (See Appendix for sample safety and health contract language.)
Step 5. File an OSHA complaint
Filing an OSHA complaint is considered a last resort that is used when all other methods of bringing the hazard to management’s attention have failed. Filing an OSHA complaint should also be considered if the hazard poses an immediate danger of injury or death. A complaint will usually trigger an inspection of the workplace. If violations of OSHA standards are found, then citations will be issued. The employer will be required to correct the hazards, and possibly pay a fine.
OSHA gives workers and their representatives the right to file a complaint. If there is union representation in the workplace, it is best to notify and work with your local union to file an OSHA complaint to ensure that union rights under the OSHAct are exercised in the event of an OSHA inspection.
Workers and the union have the right to:
- Be present during the opening conference of the inspection (where the OSHA inspector explains to the company, and the employee representative(s) why the inspection is taking place, and what will be the scope of the inspection);
- Accompany the inspector during the inspectionthe inspection; and
- Be present with management during the closing conference, or have a separate closing conference with the OSHA inspector.
The union should receive copies of OSHA citations if any are issued. In the closing conference, the OSHA inspector should be reminded that a copy of the citations should be given to the union. The citations are required to be posted at the work site for all employees to see.
Step 6. Maintain well-ordered safety and health records
Use the following records to document hazards and track actions by both the safety committee and the employer:
- Copies of all state and federal OSHA complaints and citations;
- Safety grievances with management answers and actions;
- Safety inspection worksheets, notes and observations;
- Safety meeting minutes; and
- OSHA 300 logs and reports of work-related illnesses and injuries.