Labor unions are the major organizations pursuing the collective interests of workers in the areas of health and safety, especially in the mining, manufacturing, construction, health care, and transportation sectors. Beyond assisting members with their day-to-day needs through contract negotiation and administration, unions actively work for legislative and regulatory remedies for health and safety problems. Union influence extends far beyond the workplaces of the 14 percent of workers in the United States who are unionized. Unions bargain for specific improvements in working conditions; representation and systems for improving conditions, such as health and safety committees; and procedures for members to submit specific complaints to abate hazards. They also provide technical assistance, information, and training to members facing chemical or safety dangers. Additionally, traditional bargaining for hours of work, medical benefits, disability insurance, and job security positively impact the health status of workers.
Unions work politically for the passage and implementation of laws, standards, and regulations designed to improve working conditions and worker health. Early twentieth-century legislation included wage and hour laws, limitations on child labor and industrial home work, workers' compensation, and state labor departments to inspect workplaces for hazards. The labor movement united with public health and public interest groups to pass the Federal Coal Mine Health and Safety Act of 1969 and the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, greatly expanding the federal presence in these areas. Unions have been the critical force behind most major Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) standards, providing evidence in the rulemaking record and initiating litigation to force rulemaking and to defend rules against industry opposition. Exposure standards spearheaded by the union movement include those for lead, formaldehyde, benzene, asbestos, blood-borne pathogens, and coke-oven emissions.
In the second half of the twentieth century, union and worker activity in occupational health greatly expanded. The environmental movement of the 1960s led workers to be concerned about the levels of chemical exposure in the workplace. The black lung movement in the coal mines and the white lung movement based in cotton mills spurred the enforcement of exposure limits to chemicals and dusts. The emerging epidemic of asbestos-caused cancer and lung disease defined an approach exposure control and compensation of victims, including those in the general community. Limited rights of workers under the 1970 OSHA law were expanded through collective bargaining, in part due to public recognition of work- ers' rights to be fully informed of hazards and to fully participate in their abatement. Unions campaigned for and then implemented information rules, such as chemical hazard communication and community right-to-know, to facilitate the control of chemicals.
Unions also defended research institutions such as the National Institute of Occupational
FRANKLIN E. MIRER
(SEE ALSO: Asbestos; Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, Cumulative Trauma; Mining; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health; Occupational Disease; Occupational Lung Disease; Occupational Safety and Health; Occupational Safety and Health Administration)