Safety Awakening – “Safety During A Union Strike”

October 17, 2014 No Comments

“Safety During A Union Strike”

In my 40-year safety career I’ve been the EHS manager at a number of union companies.  In two cases the union and management were unable to successfully renegotiate their contracts and strikes ensued.  One labor strike was with the “United Steelworkers” union in the USA, it lasted three weeks.  The other strike lasted about three months, and it was with the “Teamsters” union in Canada.

During each strike, I was responsible for the safety of the company employees who worked during the strike.  Also, I was responsible for the safety of the temporary workers (“temps”) that we brought in.

I’m pleased to report that during each of these two union strikes, we did not have any serious or recordable injuries!

Here are a few of the lessons that I learned during these strikes.  I hope they provide insights that help you operate safety should you ever have to work a strike:

  • Stock up with food and beverages before the strike.  You may be locked in for a while, and when vending machines run out, they won’t be re-stocked.
  • Stock up on lots of extra PPE, first aid supplies, and safety equipment before the strike.  You won’t be able to get more once the strike starts.
  • Employees will sabotage equipment and machinery during the last few hours they are at work before the strike starts.  To prevent sabotage, I called all union employees into an unannounced ad-hoc safety meeting that started six hours before the strike.  When the six-hour training was over, the employees were escorted to the exit door.  This strategy worked because no machinery was sabotaged!
  • Don’t lower your safety standards during the strike.  Provide quality safety training to everyone (management and temps) during the strike.
  • Start each shift with a safety meeting.
  • Unfortunately, you’ve got to watch temps very closely.  If you leave them alone they will do drugs and violate work and safety rules.  Keep an eye on temps at all times.
  • Many temps are foreigners who don’t speak or read  English.  This may make it impossible to train them in how to safely do their assigned jobs.  If possible, require all temps to be fluent in the English language.
  • Many temps are hopeless drug addicts.  Drug test all temps before hiring them.
  • Export the most dangerous processes to non-striking plants, or hire third-party companies to do them.
  • If possible, bring in the best equipment operators from other non-striking locations to operate the more “dangerous” machinery.
  • Assign temps to the safer jobs (sweeping, shipping, inventory, etc.).
  • Start up production very slowly.  Gradually increase speed each day as your new workforce develops experience on their new jobs.
  • Every time there is a “safety critical” operation (e.g. confined space entry, LOTO) taking place, the safety professional needs to be on the scene.  Review all safety procedures prior to the start of the safety critical procedure.
  • Safety professionals should not be assigned to a specific job.  Instead, safety professionals who work during strikes should spend their time:  doing safety training, inspecting the workplace, walking around insuring that all are working safely,  and retraining employees who need it.
  • The striking employees will likely make numerous complaints to OSHA about totally unfounded safety violations.  Be prepared for a few visits from OSHA.
  • Never allow any working employees (or temps) outside of the building by themselves (not even for a quick cigarette).  Striking employees are looking for lone employees they can “confront”.
  • Make provisions with the strikers to immediately allow emergency vehicles to cross the picket line without delay.  Contact your ambulance service, local police, and local fire departments to alert them to the strike and the fact that they will not be delayed at the picket line.
  • If you have safety managers at other non-striking locations, bring them in to work during the duration of the strike.  You’ll need all the help you can get with safety training and in enforcing safety rules.
  • Typically, the hours worked during strikes are very long.  Make sure workers don’t overexert themselves during these longer than normal shifts.  Take plenty of breaks and provide free and healthy food and beverages to all workers.
  • Working during a strike is very stressful.  Be sure to take the time to periodically lighten things up.  Have some fun and laughs to relieve the stress.
  • It’s preferable to “bus” all employees and temps who work during the strike into the plant.  Allowing individual workers to cross picket lines with their own vehicles is inviting confrontations and vehicle damage.
  • Have the windows in the employees’ and temps’ buses “blacked out” so that the strikers are not able to see into the bus at the picket line.
  • Instruct all employees and temps during the strike not to retaliate to any abusive language that they might hear from the strikers.


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