Bargaining for safer chemicals

Workers and their union have different goals than their employers related to preventing injury and illness and addressing workplace health and safety. In organized workplaces, the union’s goals are to improve working conditions and build the union. Management’s goals are a high production level, reduction in workers’ compensation costs, reduction in health insurance costs, low or no injuries recorded in their records, reduction in liability, and avoidance of inspections and fines by sending acceptable reports to the government. On an interpersonal level, managers don’t want workers to be injured. However, as an entity management often implements programs and policies that result in persuading workers from reporting injuries and illness.

The safest workplaces are those in which unions actively involve their members to reach the goals of finding and eliminating hazards. This can be effectively done when the employer and the union work jointly to assess and address those hazards. Eliminating toxic chemicals or switching to less toxic chemicals is one very, very effective process that will reduce workplace hazards. This often happens through a combination of union-only and a joint health, safety and environment committee efforts.

A starting point for unions is to negotiate contract language that builds a stronger health and safety structure and specifically addresses reducing the use of hazardous chemicals. Some suggested items to consider including in a collective bargaining agreement are:

  • General statement of employer responsibility: The employer shall provide safe and healthful conditions of work and comply with all applicable laws and regulations concerning occupational and environmental health and safety.

  • Joint labor/management health, safety and environment committee: A joint health, safety and environment committee shall be established at the workplace to be composed of workers designated by the union and an equal number of management members. The committee shall hold periodic meetings at times determined by the co-chairs, but no less often than monthly.

  • Union right to health and safety information: The employer will furnish union members serving on the joint health, safety and environment committee with information monthly, prior to regularly scheduled meetings.

  • A Chemical or Toxic Use Reduction subcommittee of the joint committee: The employer is committed to reducing toxicity and the volume of hazardous substances it uses or generates. Toxics use reduction can improve employee health and safety, protect the environment, and lower the cost of handling and disposing of hazardous substances. To that end, a Toxic Use Reduction subcommittee, with representatives from the joint health, safety and environment committee, will be established. The employer will provide the subcommittee with appropriate technical resources.

  • Recommend safer chemicals and processes: The joint committee (or subcommittee) will regularly review a list of toxic materials in the workplace. It will identify strategies to eliminate toxic and hazardous substances where possible; substitute less toxic or less hazardous replacements; and ensure engineering controls are used in cases where chemicals cannot be eliminated or substituted.

  • Be involved in purchasing decisions: The joint committee (or subcommittee) will be involved in purchasing decisions so that new materials can be reviewed to ensure that the least toxic and least hazardous substances are brought into the workplace.

Don’t forget that health and safety is a mandatory subject of bargaining under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). This means for workplaces covered by the legal requirements of the NLRA that when a change in working conditions that concerns health and safety is proposed, the union can demand to bargain and request information over the reasons for the change and the impact on employees. For more information on mandatory subjects of bargaining, read The Legal Rights of Union Stewards by Robert Schwartz.

This material is adapted from factsheets by the United Steelworkers Health, Safety & Environment Department (