Health & Safety Bargaining Tips

To be quite blunt – local, state, or federal health and safety standards are often inadequate and should be regarded as the minimum standard an employer must meet, if they even exist at all (21 states and several U.S. territories provide no safety and health protections for state, county, or municipal workers).

  • Sometimes, when these standards are developed or voted on, they are done so with heavy input from industry or employers, or using a cost-benefit analysis, or the final standard is agreed upon with political or business compromise in mind.
  • Enforcing contract language is often times faster and more efficient than relying an OSHA complaint process or the state equivalent. The complaint process can take quite some time and there may be long delays, especially if OSHA issues citations and the employer appeals them (while the hazard can continue to exist).

Many hazards are not covered by a health for safety standard (workplace violence, heat illness, ergonomic issues, etc.). Why? See the above first bullet.

Most safety and health issues are typically regarded as “conditions of employment” and because of this they are viewed as a ‘mandatory subject of bargaining’, which means the employer must in good faith discuss and bargain on the subject.

  • Due to the ‘mandatory subject of bargaining’ status this allows the union the right to bargain for higher or better health and safety standards, including things that contribute to better safety and health conditions, which can encompass a lot of things (staffing levels, rest/recovery time, physical and psychological protections).

When a contract is in force, the employer cannot make unilateral changes to the working conditions. Should they attempt to do so, the union may demand that the employer ‘bargain’ the change and the employer is not allowed to refuse to do so (but they might try).

When a ‘mandatory subject of bargaining’ is involved, the employer must provide the union with all relevant information on the subject, when the union requests it (e.g. incident reports, complaints, results of testing etc.).

Visit AFSCME’s Contracts Database for model contract language on various health and safety topics

The following information is provided as a helpful resource to use when bargaining for specific health and safety topics. This list is by no means exhaustive, so please reach out to us for assistance as you prepare to bargain. 

  • Check to see what health and safety protections you are afforded due to federal, state, local regulations, or building and health codes. A contract should never be less protective than protections already afforded to you.
  • All unions would benefit from having a standalone safety and health committee, which can be an extremely helpful tool in many ways, such as when getting ready to bargain (they can help identify the issues/hazards, help with surveys, data analysis, etc.).
  • Avoid behavior-based safety programs
      • In your contract, reject employer proposals and programs that imply accidents and injuries are the worker’s fault. “Behavior-based” programs are popular with some employers. However, most accidents and injuries are caused by working conditions, not worker mistakes or carelessness. Behavior-based programs often give great emphasis to reducing lost workdays (without changing working conditions), documenting “unsafe” worker behavior, disciplining workers for having an injury or illness, and drug testing after an injury.
  • Be skeptical of safety incentive programs
      • The contract should prohibit programs that discourage workers from reporting safety problems. These can include financial or other rewards for not having (or not reporting) injuries. These programs can pit workers against each other and can discourage injured workers from seeking appropriate medical care for a work related issue. When employers propose such programs that look at lagging indicators (e.g. injuries/incidents), unions should counter-propose safety incentive programs that use leading indicators (e.g. rewarding workers for promptly reporting unsafe conditions, or for coming up with new ways to reduce hazards).
  • Asbestos
      • The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Asbestos Worker Protection Rule extends OSHA asbestos protections to state and local employees who perform asbestos work and who are not covered by the OSHA Asbestos Standard or through an OSHA State Plan. Be aware of your state and local agency standards, as they often provide more protections than the Federal standard.
  • Access to Records
      • Remember that all employees have the right to see at least three years’ worth of full, unredacted, up-to-date OSHA 300 Logs of Injuries and Incidences, within one business day of their request. Not getting this information within one business day is an OSHA violation.  Employees should regularly double check these logs to make sure that each worker’s recordable injury and illness is recorded accurately. Logs can be used to understand accident and illness trends throughout the facility and see all employee’s exposures- not just their department or union’s.  Also, the employer has an obligation under OSHA to post the OSHA 300 A summary log in an obvious location from the previous year, from February 1 through April 30.
  • Contagious Diseases
      • COVID changed everything- and while OSHA has not yet released a formal infection control or communicable disease standard, every employer should have a plan in place to identify how to protect workers from catching or spreading contagious airborne diseases on the job.
      • To best minimize airborne disease hazards, using engineering controls like better ventilation and safe work practices like adequate staffing, sick policies, training and disinfection, should always be implemented first- before leaning into only using PPE and vaccination to minimize spread of communicable disease.
  • Labor-Management Safety Committee 
  • Stop Work Authority 
  • Workplace Violence Prevention 


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