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Posted on Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 12:20 p.m.

Construction industry is safer in states without 'right-to-work' laws, University of Michigan study finds

By Nathan Bomey

States with "right-to-work" laws, which make it harder for unions to organize, have higher rates of death among construction workers than states that preserve union rights, according to a study released today by the University of Michigan.

The study — conducted by Roland Zullo of the U-M Institute for Research on Labor, Employment, and the Economy — found that fatality rates are higher among construction workers in states with "right to work" laws.

Death rates are 34 percent to 40 percent higher for construction workers in right-to-work states, depending on how those workers are classified, U-M said in a news release.

The study did not conclude that right-to-work laws caused the higher fatality rates, suggesting that the rates might be higher because of bad weather or dangerous geographic terrain in those states.

But the study does suggest that states with higher rates of unionization might be safer for workers because unions often push for safety training and accident prevention.

"Unions appear to have a positive role in reducing construction industry and occupation fatalities, but only in states without right-to-work laws," Zullo said in a statement.

The study's release comes as the national debate over right-to-work laws continues. In Lansing, at least one bill has been introduced to make Michigan a right-to-work state, according to Michigan Radio, though Gov. Rick Snyder has said the issue is not on his agenda.

"Several states are currently considering adopting right-to-work laws, but passing these laws may have the unintended consequence of elevating workplace fatalities," Zullo said. "States attempting to reduce worker fatalities should consider encouraging trade union growth and repealing right-to-work laws."

Contact's Nathan Bomey at (734) 623-2587 or You can also follow him on Twitter or subscribe to's newsletters.


Dog Guy

Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 2:15 p.m.

Teachers are forced to pay dues to a union which uses the money to force politicians to make a heaven on earth for teachers. It is a wonderful system which works for me. Any "choice" for teachers or parents or voters would destroy the force required for it to continue. The UAW has lost the force because, unlike schooling, auto production can be done in some other country. Paper covers rock; choice smashes force.


Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 9:38 p.m.

funny, a family member is a teacher and is forced to pay dues. She hates it. Year after year she sees bad teachers keep their jobs while the newer, cheaper teachers are the first ones to get cut when cutbacks need to be made. Teachers should get to keep their jobs because of job performance and not just because they are in a union.


Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 1:28 p.m.

Over a 16-month span at University of Michigan, three construction workers were killed. I guess this is a good record since they were all union members? Can you imagine if they were all non-union. I think I'll take my chances and not be in one, I have all the benefits as any other union person and I don't have to contribute with my union dues for political campaigning. Unions are more concerned about raising funds for the sole purpose of gaining concessions and agreements with the democratic parties, we pay more taxes to insure that union members continue to live and thrive on our increasing taxations from the private sector. One of the top 3 contributors for Obamas campaign came from Union organizations and of course Goldman and Sacks."We spent a fortune to elect Barack Obama -- $60.7 million to be exact -- and we're proud of it," boasted Andy Stern, president of the Service Employees International Union, to the Las Vegas Sun this week. The behemoth labor organization's leadership is getting its money's worth. Right on.


Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 1:12 p.m.

BTW, unions also help keep out illegal aliens. Another benefit that is often over looked by those that seek to limit imigration, funny that. Another funny thing is that when Mr Snyder used one sentence out of a study to show union members pay is way, way too high, the same people that are picking this study apart went with the one sentence, not the whole study used by the guv'ner.


Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 12:54 p.m.

Having worked in both high rate union states, "right-to-work" states and in the Caribbean on a site that was union, I can state that my experience is that having a union involved makes for a safer work environment, period. Not only are job sites safer with unions around, but (gasp!) pay is higher, morale is better and the quality of work is better. Happy, safe employees make happy products. Why do so many anti-union posters still live in MI, if they find unions so reprehensible? I note that in the latest airline customer survey Southwest ranked at the top, they are heavily unionized. Delta was the worst, they are heavily anti-union.

Macabre Sunset

Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 5:03 a.m.

I would imagine it would be safer since it takes ten union workers to do the work of one man. Hence a 30-40% increase in safety is considerably less than one would predict.


Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 12:56 p.m.

Got any proof that there is a 10-1 ratio? Stereo types save time! Certainly better than rational thought.


Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 3:51 a.m.

oh boy, so many things wrong with this article! first off, by reading the title and seeing the word "safer" that would lead me to think that we are talking about accidents (or on the job accidents that resulted in death) However the word accident is only in the article once and it is attached to the word pervention, it is not attached to a statistic, the only statistic I see in the article is 34-40% and it is attached to the words death rates. The article does not say (and maybe the study fails to as well) whether these are deaths as a result of an accident on the work site or some guy dropping dead due to something like a heart attack, pulmenary embolism, lightning bolt or poisoned ham sandwich packed with care by his (primary benefactor) wife. Frankly a handful of the above scenarios can swing a statistic. Statistics can seem really big if you are using a small group of people. Furthermore, the article says the following: The study did not conclude that right-to-work laws caused the higher fatality rates, suggesting that the rates might be higher because of bad weather or dangerous geographic terrain in those states oh, for Pete's sake, who ever commissioned this study either should ask for their money back or got just enough out of it to prance around like a hot shot scaring people. this (indepth, ha!) article (we need a new word for whatever a really short incomplete article posing as an article is) what a joke!

Tom Joad

Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 3:02 a.m.

Construction is inherently dangerous. Workers in construction by and large do not follow even the most basic safety protocols, unless they are on a commercial job site with strict regulations. They don't wear safety glasses, hearing protection, or respirators when working with toxic substances and materials. Many safety precautions are entirely ignored in the interest of productivity and speed. OSHA should enforce regulations but there are no inspections unless an accident occurs. I feel pity for some exploited workers who aren't provided even basic safety equipment because their boss is too cheap. Whenever I see some clown wearing a nuisance dust mask in lieu of a properly fitted respirator I have to bite my tongue...they don't listen anyway or appreciate the advice.


Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 1:28 a.m.

After reading the study, which does not contain the data, only the analysis of the data, I find it interesting that one might want to suppose that if we looked at fatalities per construction dollar that the rates might be the same, since the analysis indicates that the construction spending per employee was higher in the right to work states. Also I am used to seeing injury and death rates based on hours worked, not gross employees. In many Northern States, which tend to be more unionized, construction season is indeed a season and so more workers work, but fewer months of the year. In Western and Southern states construction tends to run the year around. I find it telling that the study starts with a thank you to the IBEW - the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers. In general I would discount this "study" since it does not contain enough information to verify the results.


Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 1:03 a.m.

Correlation isn't causation, people. The researchers themselves said "The study did not conclude that right-to-work laws caused the higher fatality rates". So it's nothing more than an interesting coincidence at this point.

Jaded in Ann Arbor

Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 12:28 a.m.

It is safer because 2 people actually work while 5 people watch. Waste some more of my money.


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 11:58 p.m.

"Right-to-work" not only means "right-to-be-stupid" but it also clearly means "right-to-greater-danger." Strong on-the-job safety measures cost contractors and companies money. These practices 'injure' their profit margin, so to speak. As a result, many employers will naturally try to cut corners in this essential area -- if and when they are allowed to get away with such bad behavior. This is where strong unions come in. Someone has to step forward to proactively interfere with sociopathic devotion to the profit motive, no matter what the social costs in terms of loss of life or well-being. Also remember that unions have been critical to adoption of existing workplace safety standards on the state levels as well as the federal. Weaker or nonexistent unions lead to more dangerous work sites where in return workers receive less pay and fewer benefits.


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 10:55 p.m.

Rob Pollard's comments are on target. The study observed a large interaction. In RTW states, union density did not affect fatality levels as much as it did in non-RTW states. The key observation is that in non-RTW states high unionization resulted in .16 fatalities per 1000, low unionization resulted in .23 fatalities per 1000. In RTW states high unionization resulted in .18 fatalities per 1000, low unionization resulted in .20 fatalities per 1000. No effect of RTW overall. But it appears that unions are more effective in non-RTW states in preventing fatalities.


Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 12:49 p.m.

jms - The problem with the study is that it is per 1000 workers, not hours worked. So if you are a worker and work 6 months a year you count as much as a worker who worked 12 months. I would prefer to see the study normalized like the government reports incidents, per hour worked.

Stephen Landes

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 10:38 p.m.

The study appears to be incomplete. If the researcher did not take time to control for factors that do not relate to union v right to work -- as he plainly states according to the article -- then I come to the conclusion that this "study" was done to tie in to the current hot button topic of public unions and their bargaining "rights". The study is a "red herring". I do not dispute that unions may actually provide a tangible benefit to their members and employers. I contend that unions should be able to demonstrate from their own statistics that they provide value for money: training, educating, monitoring, and assuring quality work by their members. With those statistics in hand a union should be able to approach management of any business with a winning proposition: we'll do the training, assure quality, provide the discipline, and assure the health and safety of the work force; all you have to do is pay the wages. That is a profitable approach for both workers and business owners. An incomplete study rushed to publication simply clouds the discussion rather than clarifies it.


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 10:12 p.m.

I wonder how many of the commenters here actually read the study. Here's one tid bit: "By comparison, the industry fatality rates in RTW states are relatively flat regardless of the level of industry unionization: with low levels of unions, the fatality rate is 0.20; with high levels the rate is 0.18." Gosh, the difference between low levels of union and high levels is an amazing, whopping, 0.02. So many armchair experts here. I wonder how many would know which end of a hammer to pick up.


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 9:21 p.m.

Yes it read like TV journalism sounds, embelished.....

David Briegel

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 8:40 p.m. should interview Bear as a counter to the "Anti-Union Mentality" that pervades this site!

Rob Pollard

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 8:16 p.m.

Interesting. So many of you are using the words of Nathan Borney, "The study did not conclude that right-to-work laws caused the higher fatality rates, suggesting that the rates might be higher because of bad weather or dangerous geographic terrain in those states." to say it contradicts the headline, written by Nathan Borney (or if not him, Based on this, the study is "junk" like "climate change." Good work readers. Here is what the study actually said (thanks to the link provided by Mr. Borney): "For both measures, the fatality rate is higher in RTW states. The rate of industry fatalities is 40 percent higher in RTW states, and the rate of occupational fatalities is 34 percent higher in RTW states. These statistics alone, however, fall short of testing whether RTW law is responsible for the relatively high fatality rates. RTW laws are found predominately in the southern and western United States and it could be that other factors, such as geographic terrain, weather, and so forth, affect worker safety." (p. 6) In short, the study says there is an "association" btw higher worker safety and non-RTW but that further study is required. It can't be proven yet that it is casual, i.e., "responsible", as the research didn't controlled for the other factors mentioned (e.g., weather) but it provides a basis for further study. The headline made things sound more definitive than it is; it should have read, "Construction industry may be safer in states without 'right-to-work' laws, U of M Study finds." But the study isn't "bad" b/c the headline could have been more nuanced. Put your tin foil hats away.


Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 12:55 p.m.

Rob - This study uses a non-standard benchmark, per worker, not per hour worked that all companies are required to report to OSHA and state safety organizations. We don't know if a worker worked full or part time. I note that in the last table of the study, the GDP per worker in the Right to Work States is much higher than the non-Right to Work states. I can take this one of two ways (1) The RTW laborers are much harder working OR (2) The RTW laborers worked more hours on average. I suspect it is (2) since I don't see many construction workers goofing off on the job. So to my mind the whole study is flawed. But, since none of the data, that is analyzed is in the study, only the scatter plots and analysis results, it is impossible to get to an answer. To my mind it is very POOR research.


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 8:12 p.m.

In all fairness to the author, he probably does not write the headlines - a designer does ... that is likely why so many .com headlines are disconnected to the actual content that or, they purposely create misleading headlines to generate clicks ...

L. C. Burgundy

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 7:45 p.m.

Nothing like the headline not matching what's in the study itself, to say nothing of the study's actual quality. Here's another one I'm sure could be written given what I know what I know regarding demographics between the right to work states and forced unionization states: "Construction safer when fewer minorities employed - whites best for safe construction." That's equally based in fact as the headline we have now. No right to work is about protecting union dues. Follow the money. Studies like this are post-hoc rationalizations for a political position at best.


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 7:43 p.m.

Dead workers don't pay dues.

Bob Martel

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 6:37 p.m.

Bad headline and possibly a bad study (can't say for sure about that second point since I did not read the study.) The headline (and perhaps the study?) confuses coincidence, correlation and causation. It could be that states with right to work laws also have less demanding laws regarding worker safety or less enforcement. All of which could account for higher accident rates and have nothing to do with right to work laws.

Basic Bob

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 6:35 p.m.

The most important benefit of union membership in the construction trades is that it ensures that people are qualified for the work they are doing, and know how to do the job safely. Apprenticeship programs are very important to ensuring that these skills are passed on to the entry level workers. Unfortunately for workers in right-to-work states, there is no control to make sure people know what they are doing. A company that hires eager but less qualified workers increases the risk of an accident. But this really has nothing at all to do with the collective bargaining aspect of union membership. Many union workers are qualified otherwise (teaching certificates are an example), while some unskilled positions require no qualification at all.


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 5:44 p.m.

Is this responsible journalism writing a headline like this? By: Nathan Bomey Staff Construction industry is safer in states without 'right-to-work' laws, University of Michigan study finds "The study did not conclude that right-to-work laws caused the higher fatality rates, suggesting that the rates might be higher because of bad weather or dangerous geographic terrain in those states."


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 9:53 p.m.

Where are most right to work states? It certainly is not in the "bad weather" states. Ready the full study. Right to work is right o die for lower pay.


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 5:37 p.m.

These two quotes from the article says it all! "according to a study released today by the University of Michigan." "The study did not conclude that right-to-work laws caused the higher fatality rates, suggesting that the rates might be higher because of bad weather or dangerous geographic terrain in those states"


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 5:26 p.m.

No big surprise. Why would we expect corporate America to look out for the low wage worker. As we see Rand Paul (R) in Kentucky trying to stop regulations protecting miners from Black Lung.....what would we expect?


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 5:47 p.m.

Yes, or stating is brilliant opinion (sarcasm there) about who can sit at lunch counters.

Atticus F.

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 5:45 p.m.

At least Rand and his thugs will be picking on someone their own size this time...As apposed to beating up and stomping a 90lb female protester.


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 5:24 p.m.

"The study did not conclude that right-to-work laws caused the higher fatality rates, suggesting that the rates might be higher because of bad weather or dangerous geographic terrain in those states." So, why does Roland Zullo conclude that "States attempting to reduce worker fatalities should consider encouraging trade union growth and repealing right-to-work laws." It doesn't make sense does it? Maybe we need another article on why he came to this conclusion. Of course, it could be like "Climate Change" where no evidence exists but it makes you feel good.


Fri, Apr 8, 2011 : 12:40 p.m.

no evidence? <a href="" rel='nofollow'></a>


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 5:53 p.m.

Read the actual study rather than his comments for the article - it is interesting but the caveat is that further research is necessary to verify the hypothesis.

Atticus F.

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 5:20 p.m.

'Right to work' laws in no way guarantee anybody the &quot;right to work&quot;.

say it plain

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 5:11 p.m.

I'd guess Professor Zullo will need to watch his emails now ;-) It doesn't bode well for Institutes on Labor and the Economy to find positive effects of labor organization in the face of managerial bottom-lines right now ;-) All their anti-Americ...I mean, um, &quot;off hours&quot; expressions might suddenly be deeply interesting to the State Organizations charged with funding them. You know how that goes, we've seen that film before, and the current talking-heads for the union-busting GOP tend to be all about re-deeming the mccarthyite types as saviours of the free world lol!

David Briegel

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 5:10 p.m.

I wonder if will get a response from Will Warner? Maybe Mr Warner could write a column in response to this clear proof of the folly of his anti-union &quot;mentality&quot; argument! I hope Bear will respond also as he cleary had strong feelings regarding the truthfulness of Mr Warner's column. Workplace Safety, Accident Prevention, Environmental Conditions, Ergonomic Rules are just some of the many benefits that unions have brought to the workplace. Society has benefitted greatly from these progressives! What's a few workplace accidents or even deaths when corporate profits are at stake? The Mackinac Center and their TeaPublican &quot;values&quot; are against civilized society!


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 8:55 p.m.

(cont.) only about profits. Remember BP Deepwater Horizon? The top management decision makers cut corners, trying to save money and it cost 11 lives, billions of dollars and untold ecological &amp; environmental damage that will affect the Gulf Coast for years to come. A union would've been a great measure to avert a disaster like that by preventing vital services from being outsourced, &amp; ensuring that quality, didn't decay. A positive force against policies of cutting to the bone and outsourcing to the cheapest bidder &amp; returning to the old paradigm of long hours, poor quality, insecurity and stress. Unions are the focus of solid opposition to more job losses &amp; investment in our future. Not for patriotic reasons but for preservation of jobs and industries - fundamentally for preservation of the wealth and technology created by the labor of previous generations that are being systematically destroyed by corporate greed. This article doesn't do justice to it's title, it is full of caveats &amp; apologies. Bottom line is that without unions, safety is definitely a back burner sort of issue with companies. Every safety law you can point to in this country has it's roots in union activities. Too easily we forget; we feel as if these laws have been there forever. Not so. Unions gave the workers a voice and that voice called for live's over profit, not the other way around.

David Briegel

Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 8:42 p.m.

Bear, thank you for your intelligent response to the misinformation on this site!


Thu, Apr 7, 2011 : 8:27 p.m.

As a stagehand, we fly tons of steel in the air that could possibly drop down on people's heads, killing or maiming them. We work with high powered electric cables that, if handled incorrectly can and will electrocute someone, as well as destroy electronic equipment worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Have you ever heard the old show biz saying, &quot; being in the lime-light &quot;? Well, the footlights on a lot of the old stages were actually cans filled with lime that was set aflame. If you accidentally tipped one over, you could burn downt he whole theater. At the very least you would be burned to the bone and no longer able to work, being maimed &amp; disfigured. Before the unions, if a worker was with a travelling show and something happened to him on the job, he was cut out of the show, replaced, paid whatever they owed in wages and left to his own devices. Imagine, being cut loose in the middle of the winter, in the middle of nowhere, having to find your own way home and having only a paltry sum to get you by until you heal, if you are able to. Yes, we stress safety as No.1 in our business. If it isn't safe, we don't do it. If we observe something that isn't safe occurring, we stop it and alert everyone to the problem and take care of it. In right to work states, most are afraid of losing their jobs if they don't do as they are told, regardless of the risks. A fine example (yeah, I'm bringing it up again because it is the posterchild for why we stress safety and why unions are important.) is the non-union job in the Silverdome. Word amongst people in our trade is that a contractor saw the bend in the middle of the truss, shouted &quot;STOP!&quot; and the motor operator, stopped, looked at him, then started moving the truss up again. It collapsed after moving another two feet. That action is typical of non union job sites. There is no stress on safety. Cheaper to lose a worker than to adhere to safety standards. mngmnt doesn't care who dies; only about prof