Workplace Fatalities Increase As Union Membership Decreases Nationwide

Chicago attorney discusses study linking fatalities, Right to Work laws

Workplace fatalities nationwide increased in 2016 for the third year in a row by the largest amount in more than a decade, according to the latest statistics. And a recent study suggests this trend could be linked to efforts across the country to enact anti-union legislation, which has resulted in the continued decline in union membership, a finding that comes as no surprise to Chicago workplace accident attorney Benjamin A. Crane of Coplan & Crane.

“Workplace safety needs to be a top priority for all businesses,” Crane said. “Unfortunately, instead of workplaces being safer, statistics show they’re becoming more dangerous than ever. There’s a been a lot debate over why the number of fatalities in workplaces have continued to climb in recent years. But this recent study analyzing the link between workplace fatalities and the enactment of anti-union legislation nationwide seems to confirm what we feared all along. The hard-fought protections secured by labor unions in the past century helped protect the safety and well-being of all workers. Now, those protections are slowly being dismantled and American workers are more at risk.”

Link between workplace fatalities, Right To Work legislation

Michael Zoorob, a doctoral candidate at Harvard University’s Institute for Quantitative Social Science, recently published an article in the British Medical Journal about the link between workplace fatalities in the United States and the enactment of Right To Work legislation nationwide. Accepted for publication on May 22, the article is titled, “Does ‘right to work’ imperil the right to health? The effect of labour unions on workplace fatalities.

Zoorob found that “diminished union membership due to ‘right to work’ legislation has led to a 14.2 percent increase in workplace mortality.” This trend may be due to the fact that “in the United States, collective bargaining agreements secured by unions have been documented to provide numerous workplace hazards protections, such as shift restrictions (to prevent fatigue) and safety equipment provisions, along with other potential benefits to health such as more generous employment-provided medical insurance.”

Zoorob added, “Studies suggest that unionized workplaces receive more health and safety inspections from the federal agency OSHA, and the threat of union organizing may impel employers to improve workplace safety.”

Nationwide workplace fatality statistics

Many studies and articles have been written about the recent increase in the number of fatal workplace accidents in recent years, particularly in 2016. According to statistics gathered by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a unit of the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of workplace fatalities in 2016 reached its highest figure since 2008. And the increase in the number of fatal workplace accidents surpassed all recent records dating back to 2003.

Year    Total Workplace Fatalities     Annual Difference    Percentage Change
2016 5,190 + 354 + 7.3 percent
2015 4,836 + 14 + 0.2 percent
2014 4,821 + 236 + 5.1 percent
2013 4,585 – 43 – 0.9 percent
2012 4,628 – 65 – 0.1 percent
2011 4,693 – 3 – 0.0 percent
2010 4,693 + 139 + 3 percent
2009 4,551 – 663 – 12.7 percent
2008 5,214 – 443 – 7.8 percent
2007 5,657 – 183 – 3.1 percent

(Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Workplace fatality statistics in Right To Work states

In Zoorob’s analysis of the possible link between workplace fatalities and the “recent uptick in the adoption of anti-union legislation by state legislatures,” Zoorob noted which states have adopted Right To Work (TRW) laws in recent years.

Right To Work laws prohibit unions from requiring employees to join a union as a mandatory condition of employment, even though workers already have the right to opt out of full union membership under federal law. Under Right To Work laws, workers can choose if they want to pay certain fees to unions, even if they benefit from labor contracts negotiated by the union.

Overall, 28 states nationwide have Right To Work laws. Since 2000, seven states have adopted Right To Work laws – Oklahoma in 2001, Michigan and Indiana in 2012, Wisconsin in 2015, West Virginia in 2016, and Kentucky and Missouri in 2017.

Not unrelatedly, union membership has been declining steadily every year since 1983, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. In 1983, a total of 20.1 percent of all workers belonged to a union. By 2015, that figure had declined to 11.1 percent.

To better understand the impact Right To Work laws have had on workplace fatalities, we can compare the number of fatalities in states before and after such laws were enacted. Based on the number of workplace fatalities before and after such laws were enacted in Michigan and Indiana, the figures in both states supports Zoorob’s findings. (Comparative statistics were not available in the other five states that recently enacted Right to Work laws.)

Workplace Fatalities in Michigan and Indiana, 2011-2016

State    (Year RTW Enacted)         2011        2012        2013        2014         2015         2016    
Michigan    2012 141 137 135 143 134 162
Indiana    2012 125 115 127 130 115 137

(Source: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics)

Workplace safety must come first

While debates over Right To Work laws and the rights of unions and corporations continue across the country, politicians, union leaders and businesses need to make sure safe working conditions continue to be a top priority at all workplaces, Crane said.

“The recent rise in the number of fatal workplace accidents nationwide should serve as a wake-up call for everyone,” Crane said. “We cannot take workplace safety for granted. The lives of workers are at stake. Anything that workers, politicians, labor leaders and others can do to protect people’s safety at work must come first. We can’t be complacent and simply assume that workplaces will magically become safer. We have to fight for safer working conditions and demand that employers make safety their top priority.”

Attorney Benjamin A. Crane is a founding partner of the law firm Coplan & Crane in Oak Park and Chicago, Illinois. Attorney Crane concentrates his practice on cases involving personal injury law, medical malpractice, workplace injuries, transportation (automobile, truck, and railroad) negligence, premises liability and wrongful death litigation.