Collective Bargaining to Protect Workers’ Health and Safety

On September 27, 1971, OCAW Local 8-837 implemented a breakthrough agreement with KBI to allow an independent industrial hygiene study of beryllium dust levels in the plant. From left to right, the union negotiating committee and the industrial hygiene experts from MIT: Herb Sterling, OCAW International Representative, Robert Corrigan, President, OCAW Local 8-837, Frankie Fellin, Local 8-837 Safety Committee, Richard Chamberlin, MIT, Wodka, Joe Leahy, MIT, and Bob Petruce, Local 8-837 Safety Committee Chairman.

OSHA will never have enough inspectors. There are only about 2,200 Federal and state plan OSHA inspectors responsible for the health and safety of 130 million workers at more than 8 million worksites around the nation.


Consequently, workers and their unions should possess the training and the tools needed to recognize, evaluate, and measure health and safety hazards. Workers and their unions should have the right to investigate such hazards and directly require the employer to correct such hazards. Working conditions can be mandatory subjects of collective bargaining. By negotiating appropriate provisions into a collective bargaining agreement, workers and their unions can achieve safe workplaces without waiting for the OSHA inspector or hoping that OSHA responds correctly.


Collective bargaining provisions are especially useful when toxic or carcinogenic substances are used in the workplace. Quite often, the difference between an unsafe exposure level and a permissible exposure level cannot be detected by the human senses. Measurements must be obtained through sampling devices. Even when the OSHA inspector is present, it is often easy for the employer to manipulate the production process. As a result, the OSHA inspector fails to detect overexposure. But if workers have a union contract which provides them with the training, equipment, and the authority to perform sampling, such unsafe conditions can be documented as they are occurring.


Throughout my work with Tony Mazzocchi at the OCAW, it was our paramount goal to empower workers with the tools which they needed to correct health and safety hazards. In bargaining with employers for such provisions, we were able to bring some deadly hazards under control.


One example was beryllium, a toxic and carcinogenic dust. OCAW Local 8-837 represented the workers at the Kawecki-Berylco Industries (KBI) plant in Hazelton, Pennsylvania, which refined beryllium metal from raw beryl ore. An initial 1971 independent study of the plant by industrial hygienists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), which occurred as a result of negotiations brought on by the union, found exposures as high as 1,310 micrograms of beryllium per cubic meter of air. (The OSHA standard at the time was 2 micrograms per cubic meter of air.)

In 1973, after a five month strike, OCAW Local 8-837 obtained a contractual agreement from the company to pay the training costs and the lost time, and provide the equipment, in order to permit two union designated employees to perform air sampling for beryllium in the plant, including during "emergency situations and at certain trouble spots when a particularly dangerous condition exists." These air samples were analyzed independently at MIT, but at the company’s expense.

By arming the workers with air samplers and the right to sample especially "when a particularly dangerous condition exists," the local union was able to drive down the exposures in the plant. Within the first 12 months of the new contract, there was a dramatic improvement in the beryllium dust levels in the plant.

Firm contract language is essential to protecting worker health and safety. My firm is available to provide unions with representation on health and safety issues in collective bargaining negotiations.