Executive Vice President’s Report, Spring 2017

Doing Our Part for Safety

Doing Our Part for Safety

On the job injuries, illnesses and deaths go largely unnoticed, except to the victim, and those family members and co-workers who are directly impacted.

Each day, 13 people are killed on the job because of hazardous working conditions. They leave their home, go to work and don’t go home to their families again.

Tens of thousands more die each year from occupational diseases, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Some 3.7 million work-related injuries are reported each year. 

These stark figures illustrate the ongoing attack on working people and their unions by those who put profits before human lives and are unwilling to invest in workplace safety.

A proven record

It doesn’t have to be this way. I know, because we in the UWUA are doing our part to reduce illness, injuries and fatalities in our workplaces and have the record to prove it.

Since the founding of the UWUA almost 80 years ago, safety has always been the highest priority. When we gathered at our 28th Constitutional Convention in 2007 to debate and discuss our key principles we put safety first. Our slogan became the “safest, most productive, highest skilled workers in the world.” We did so because we know that without safety the value of the other words is greatly diminished.

At the core of a safe workplace is a commitment by workers and their employer to work together to address safety concerns. Many of our employers have embraced our commitment to safety in concrete ways.

The Michigan State Utility Workers Council (MSUWC) and Consumers Energy are a great example of this. As the chart on the facing page shows, the union and the employer worked together to bring down the total number of annual safety incidents from 558 to 73 between 2007 and 2016 — a seven-fold drop in only ten years! 

This remarkable story began with the 2005 contract negotiations. The one thing absolutely agreed upon was that the union and the company should not have to argue over safety. Safety is an issue that should be number one for the union and number one for the company, because without a safe workforce you really have nothing.

Out of that came an agreement to build a culture of safety together. That required a culture change on both sides, where both the company and the union workers agreed to regard a safe workforce as a number 1 priority.   

Neither party can do it alone. The commitment to partner on safety built a relationship of mutual trust. Once this was done, the results were incredible. It doesn’t happen overnight but if you stay at it, over time, the results are remarkable.

To date, hundreds of our union brothers and sisters, their families, communities and the society at large have benefited from the reduction of on the job injuries.

Since the 2005 contract the MSUWC has gone from three full time safety reps to eight full time reps all paid for by the company.

Do it right and go home safe

In 2005 when I was President of the MSUWC, we held the first safety culture kick-off meeting with representatives from all 23 locals within the MSUWC. I remember posing a question to members to explain the need to move to a safety culture: Why cut corners to get the job done faster so you can go to another job site and cut corners to get the job done faster so you can go to another job site and cut corners to get that job done faster? Every one of us is paid by the hour. We don’t go home until quitting time. So why don’t we do it right the first time, be safe and go home in good health? It just made sense.

We were able to establish that, by working together, the company and the union could build a safety culture. We told management that the UWUA should be the ones training the workforce. We do the work, we know the work and we’re the best at it. How much better can it get than utility workers training utility workers? We convinced the company to partner with us through the Power for America Training Trust and we implemented a pilot program successfully.

We keep expanding from there. Based on our record of success, our message to companies is clear: if you want the safest, most highly skilled, productive workforce out there, no one teaches safety better and more efficiently than the workers who perform the work every day. And that’s us, the UWUA.