The agreement between Bethlehem Steel and the United Steelworkers of America is typical of company-wide agreements in large unionized manufacturing enterprises in the United States. Steel industry labour agreements have contained safety and health articles for more than 50 years. Many provisions negotiated in the past gave workers and the union rights that were later guaranteed by law. Despite this redundancy, the provisions still appear in the contract as a hedge against changes in the law, and to allow the union the option of taking violations to impartial arbitration rather than the courts.
The Bethlehem agreement runs from 1 August 1993 to 1 August 1999. It covers 17,000 workers in six plants. The full agreement is 275 pages long; 17 pages are devoted to safety and health.
Section 1 of the safety and health article pledges the company and the union to cooperate in the objective of eliminating accidents and health hazards. It obligates the company to provide safe and healthful workplaces, obey federal and state law, provide employees with the necessary protective equipment free of charge, provide chemical safety information to the union and inform workers of the hazards and controls for toxic substances. It grants the union’s central safety and health department the right to any information in the company’s possession that is “relevant and material” to an understanding of potential hazards. It requires the company to make air sampling tests and environmental investigations at the request of the union co-chairperson of the plant’s safety and health committee.
Section 2 sets up joint union-management safety and health committees at the plant and national levels, prescribes the rules under which they operate, mandates training for committee members, gives members of the committee access to all parts of the plant to facilitate the committee’s work and specifies the applicable rates of pay for committee members on committee business. The section also specifies how disputes over protective equipment are to be resolved, requires the company to notify the union of all potentially disabling accidents, sets up a system of joint accident investigation, requires the company to gather and supply to the union certain safety and health statistics, and establishes an extensive safety and health training programme for all employees.
Section 3 gives workers the right to remove themselves from work involving hazards beyond those “inherent in the operation” and provides an arbitration mechanism through which disputes over such work refusals can be resolved. Under this provision, a worker cannot be disciplined for acting in good faith and on the basis of objective evidence, even if a subsequent investigation shows that the hazard did not in fact exist.
Section 4 specifies that the committee’s role is advisory, and that committee members and officers of the union acting in their official capacity are not to be held liable for injuries or illnesses.
Section 5 states that alcoholism and drug abuse are treatable conditions, and sets up a programme of rehabilitation.
Section 6 establishes an extensive programme for controlling carbon monoxide, a serious hazard in primary steel production.
Section 7 provides workers with vouchers for the purchase of safety shoes.
Section 8 requires the company to keep individual medical records confidential except in certain limited circumstances. However, workers have access to their own medical records, and may release them to the union or to a personal physician. In addition, physicians for the company are required to notify workers of adverse medical findings.
Section 9 establishes a medical surveillance programme.
Section 10 establishes a programme for investigating and controlling the hazards of video display terminals.
Section 11 establishes full-time safety representatives in each plant, chosen by the union but paid by the company.
In addition, an appendix to the agreement commits the company and the union to review each plant’s safety programme for mobile equipment operating on rails. (Fixed rail equipment is the leading cause of death by traumatic injury in the American steel industry.)