Should Organized Labor “Own” Occupational Health & Safety?

| August 24, 2007

According to discussions surrounding the survey currently being circulated by the Technical Management Board (TMB) of ISO, one of the important factors in determining whether ISO moves forward with an occupational health and safety management standard (OHSMS) is whether ISO should defer to the International Labor Organization (ILO).  ILO has published its own guidance document on OH&S management systems — ILO-OSH 2001 Guidelines on occupational safety and health management systems.

Setting aside for the moment whether ISO is the appropriate forum for setting social standards, this raises an equally interesting question:

 

Should Organized Labor “Own” Occupational Health & Safety?

 

For the following three reasons – No.

 

1.  Organized Labor No Longer Represents the Majority of Employees.

 

Labor union membership continues to plummet.  In 1945, more than one-third of employees in the U.S. belonged to unions; by 1998, union membership had fallen to 13.8 percent.  According to U.S. Department of Labor Statistics, in 2006, the percentage of workers in unions dropped to 12 percent (The Decline of Union Power and How to stem the decline of unions ).

 

2.  Fewer and Fewer Workers Are Employees.

 

The traditional employee-employer arrangement is disappearing.  Contingent workers (e.g. temporary contract workers, freelance workers, consultants) represent a substantial, and growing percentage, of the U.S. workforce.  According to various surveys, between 14 and 25 percent of the U.S. workforce is made up of contingent workers.

 

In addition, with the decline of manufacturing jobs and the raise of service industry jobs, the workplace is now populated with many non-employees – e.g. contractors, temporary agency employees, visitors and patrons. OH&S hazards impact them as well.

 

3.  Occupational Safety and Health Is Not a Union Priority

 

Organized labor is being battered.  In addition to losing membership, it is facing many difficult issues — factories closing, benefits vaporizing, pensions disappearing — as well as forced labor, discrimination and globalization.

 

With all of these difficult issues to address, occupational safety and health is no longer being given much priority in labor organizations.  As an example, in May of 2005, the AFL-CIO eliminated its safety and health department and transferred the remaining staff into a new government affairs department (ASSE article). 

 

In the past, organized labor was instrumental in improving workplace health and safety conditions.  This no longer seems to be the case.

 

On its web site, the International Labor Organization (ILO) lists its priorities and fields of action.  Where does occupational safety and health rank in its list of “fields of action“?  Last. In addition, OH&S is not even expressly mentioned in ILO’s list of four strategic objectives.

 

Should organized labor have a voice in setting OH&S standards?  Definitely.

 

But so should all those who are not represented by organized labor.

 

What do you think?  Add your comments below.

 

© ENLAR® Compliance Services, Inc. (2007)

 

Category: Standards & Certification

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