Union Membership and Fatal Work Injury

Union membership has historically had a positive impact on wages, benefits, and general job security, regardless of industry. But how does it impact workplace safety?

By using data gathered from the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, we were able to shed some light on the relationship between unionization, right to work laws, and fatal work injury rate. With the help of visual data agency 1Point21 Interactive, we compared union participation of each state’s workforce with the rate of fatal work injuries per 100,000 workers in 2017 – while also denoting any right to work laws in that state.  The result is an interactive map below of each state’s union membership and fatal work injury rate.

How Does Union Membership Affect Fatal Work Injury Rate?

According to our findings, states with higher union membership rates typically have significantly lower fatal work injury rates. Likewise, those with low union membership tend to have higher fatal work injury rates.

For example, Connecticut has a union membership rate of 16.9 percent (fourth highest in the nation), while boasting a fatal work injury rate of 1.9 (tied for second-lowest). In fact, all of the states with fatal work injury rates 2.5 or lower have double-digit percentages in union membership.

Union Membership Rates Average Fatal Injury Rate
4.9 or less 4.04
5.0 – 9.9 5.03
10 – 14.9 3.84
15 – 19.9 3.30
20+ 2.85

The data here is clear: States with less than 5% union membership have an average fatal injury rate that is 42 percent higher than those with 20% or greater union membership.

While there still exist outliers (Alaska, Arizona, North Carolina, Vermont), this trend persists when these data are aggregated for a nationwide comparison.

Below, we list the Union membership (percentage of full time workers who are members of Unions), the fatal work in injury rate and whether or not the state has Right to Work Laws

State Union Membership (Percent) Right to Work Laws 2017 Fatal Work Injury Rate Per 100,000 Workers
Alabama 7.4 Yes 4.3
Alaska 18.1 No 10.2
Arizona 4 Yes 3
Arkansas 5.1 Yes 6.1
California 15.5 No 2.2
Colorado 9.6 No 2.8
Connecticut 16.9 No 1.9
Delaware 10.7 No 2.4
District of Columbia 9.8 No 3.4
Florida 5.6 Yes 3.3
Georgia 4 Yes 4.1
Hawaii 21.3 No 2.2
Idaho 4.8 Yes 4.8
Illinois 15 No 2.8
Indiana 8.9 Yes 4.5
Iowa 7 Yes 4.7
Kansas 7.8 Yes 5.2
Kentucky 9.6 Yes 3.8
Louisiana 4.4 Yes 6.3
Maine 11.4 No 2.7
Maryland 10.8 No 3
Massachusetts 12.4 No 3.2
Michigan 15.6 Yes 3.4
Minnesota 15.2 No 3.5
Mississippi 5.3 Yes 6.2
Missouri 8.7 No 4.4
Montana 11.9 No 6.9
Nebraska 8.2 Yes 3.6
Nevada 12.7 Yes 2.4
New Hampshire 11.3 No 1.6
New Jersey 16.2 No 1.6
New Mexico 6.7 No 4.7
New York 23.8 No 3.5
North Carolina 3.4 Yes 3.9
North Dakota 5.1 Yes 10.1
Ohio 12.5 No 3.3
Oklahoma 5.5 Yes 5.5
Oregon 14.9 No 3.2
Pennsylvania 12 No 3
Rhode Island 16.1 No 1.6
South Carolina 2.6 Yes 4.2
South Dakota 5.4 Yes 7.3
Tennessee 5.7 Yes 4.4
Texas 4.7 Yes 4.3
Utah 3.9 Yes 2.9
Vermont 11 No 7
Virginia 4.6 Yes 2.9
Washington 18.8 No 2.5
West Virginia 11 Yes 7.4
Wisconsin 8.3 Yes 3.5
Wyoming 6 Yes 7.7

How Do Right to Work Laws Affect Fatal Work Injury Rate?

In our study, we also found that right to work laws may have a correlation to fatal work injury rate as well: those states with right to work laws generally seem to have a higher fatal work injury rate than those with no right to work laws.

Considering these laws’ direct relationship to union membership, this should be expected. Right to work laws are state-level laws that essentially allow workers to opt out of joining a union. In other words, any state that has a right to work law cannot force workers to join a union as a condition for a job.

However, although right to work laws give off the general message that it allows workers to retain their personal right to choose whether or not to unionize, it’s clear that they have an effect on fatal injury rates across the nation. On average, states with no right to work laws have a fatal injury rate of 3.48, while those with right to work laws have a fatal injury rate of 4.81 – a 38% difference.

Why Does Union Membership Affect Fatal Work Injury Rates?

These data reinforce previous notions that union membership does in fact have a positive impact on workplace safety.

Much of the reason why this is the case stems from the collective identity of a union as it pertains to the workforce. A union represents the workforce as a whole in unionized industries, offering support and advocating on their behalf for any and all rights in the workplace. In a unionized industry, companies do not deal with the workforce on an employee-by-employee basis, but rather with the workforce as a whole entity. This provides leverage to unions to dictate their own terms for the job, allowing them to:

  • Negotiate the terms of safety within their employment contracts, requiring more stringent safety standards and equipment.
  • Dictate the terms of employment, optimizing working conditions (and minimizing workplace accidents) by allowing workers to work reasonable shifts and minimal overtime, if necessary.
  • Push for better healthcare, leading to a healthier, happier workforce.

Additionally, if the standards of a workplace are not satisfactory, unions have the power to make complaints directly to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, who is primarily tasked with enforcing workplace safety regulations.

Right to work laws similarly affect fatal work injury rates because they directly influence a union’s impact in a state. Those states that don’t have right to work laws typically have more improved workplace safety conditions across the board because those in unionized industries are “forced” to join a union in order to be employed.

Unions Provide an Invaluable Benefit to Employees

Union membership may cost more upfront with dues and other fees for employees, but this study, along with articles from numerous peer-review journals, constantly remind us that unions exist to preserve and protect the rights and safety of employees in potentially dangerous industries that are ripe for exploitation.

If you have more questions about the impact of unions on your rights in the workplace, it may be ideal to contact an experienced attorney who specializes in matters of employment law and workers’ rights.