STUDY:  Unionized Construction Offers Superior Health and Safety Outcomes

Unionized Construction Experiences Significantly Fewer Violations Across Nine Midwestern States

La Grange, IL:  An analysis of Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspections at construction jobsites has revealed that unionized construction workers face 34% fewer health and safety violations than their nonunion counterparts, and as much as 64% less across nine Midwestern states.  

Read the report, “The Impact of Unions on Construction Worksite Health and Safety: Evidence from OSHA Inspections” here.

The study was conducted jointly by the Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) and the Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. All told, it examined data on more than 37,000 OSHA inspections conducted in 2019 and found that union jobsites were 19% less likely to have health and safety violations and had an average of 34% fewer violations per inspection.   

“Construction worksites with OSHA violations are more likely to suffer workplace injuries, which can impose billions of dollars per year in added burdens on businesses and state workers’ compensation systems,” said study coauthor, PMCR Director, and University of Illinois Professor Dr. Robert Bruno. “Employers that take preventative and proactive steps to lower the risk of injuries and illnesses experience greater levels of output on the jobsite, and ultimately save money for both themselves and taxpayers.”

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, nearly 14% of the nation’s construction industry workers were represented by unions in 2019. Yet ILEPI and PMCR’s analysis of national OSHA data reveals that, in this same year, union construction jobsites only accounted for 5% of total safety violations, while non-union sites accounted for 95%. The unionized construction sector’s superior safety record was generally consistent across each of eight major construction subsectors that had at least 1,000 inspections, and across each of OSHA’s ten regions. In Illinois, for example, union worksites accounted for just 8% of all OSHA violations even though unions represented 34% of the state’s construction workforce.     

“With our nation readying at least $1.2 trillion in new infrastructure investments, it is vital to understand safety trends in construction because it is one of our economy’s most physically demanding and dangerous occupations,” said study coauthor and ILEPI Executive Director Frank Manzo IV. “The data makes clear that the unionized side of the construction industry is producing vastly superior outcomes.”

In their report, Manzo and Bruno note that prior studies have linked higher rates of construction unionization with lower rates of occupational fatalities—crediting the unionized industry’s investment in registered apprenticeships, which train the overwhelming majority of construction apprentices in the United States.

“Registered apprenticeships aren’t just attaching workers to middle-class construction careers, they are training workers in industrywide best practices for operating heavy machinery, working with hazardous materials, and avoiding preventable accidents on the jobsite,” Manzo added. “There is no doubt that this work isn’t just paying off from the standpoint of reducing fatalities, but also from the standpoint of preventing the very health and safety violations cause these tragedies.”

To promote safer construction worksites across the country, the researchers suggest that policymakers consider greater utilization of policies that promote institutionalized training and high safety standards, including prevailing wage laws, responsible bidder ordinances (RBOs), project labor agreements (PLAs), and the repeal of so-called “right-to-work” laws, the latter of which has been linked by the research to weaker apprenticeship systems.

“Safety problems are not just a threat to the health of the construction workforce our nation needs right now, they impose real burdens that hurt productivity, shrink output, and increase costs,” Bruno concluded.  “The data is very clear: embracing the institutions that correlate with better safety outcomes in physically demanding occupations can be a win-win-win for workers, businesses, and taxpayers alike.”

The Illinois Economic Policy Institute (ILEPI) is a nonpartisan nonprofit organization which uses advanced statistics and the latest forecasting models to promote thoughtful economic growth for businesses and working families in Illinois and across the Midwest.

The Project for Middle Class Renewal (PMCR) at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign investigates the working conditions of workers in today’s economy to elevate public discourse aimed at reducing poverty, create more stable forms of employment, and promote middle-class jobs.