Doing It Old School: Peer-Led Occupational Safety Training in the U.S. Construction Industry

By Sinyai, Clayton; ord, Pete et al. | McGill Journal of Education (Online), Fall 2013 | Go to article overview

Doing It Old School: Peer-Led Occupational Safety Training in the U.S. Construction Industry


Sinyai, Clayton, ord, Pete, Trahan, Chris, McGill Journal of Education (Online)


ABSTRACT. Many labour organizations that sponsor occupational health and safety training champion "peer training," preferring instructors drawn from the shopfloor over academically credentialed experts. But peer training is hardly new: in the skilled trades, master craftsmen have instructed apprentices since the Middle Ages. Building on the apprenticeship model of education, the U.S.-based construction unions have created a network of more than 4,000 peer trainers who provide occupational health and safety training to up to 100,000 men and women in the building trades each year.

COmmE DANS L'ANCIEN TEmPS : LA FORmATION EN SéCURITé AU TRAVAIL OFFERTE PAR LES PAIRS DANS L'INDUSTRIE DE LA CONSTRUCTION AUx ÉTATS-UNIS

RÉSUMÉ. Plusieurs syndicats offrant des formations en santé et en sécurité au travail valorisent la formation par les pairs et favorisent l'embauche de formateurs issus du plancher de l'usine, au détriment d'experts universitaires. Or, cette façon de faire n'est pas récente. En effet, dans le domaine des métiers spécialisés, les artisans forment les apprentis depuis l'époque du Moyen Âge. Se basant sur le modèle éducationnel de compagnonnage, les associations syndicales du domaine de la construction ont créé un réseau regroupant plus de 4 000 formateurs-travailleurs qui donnent une formation en santé et sécurité au travail à plus de 100 000 travailleurs et travailleuses du domaine de la construction par année.

Union-driven, peer-led outreach training has featured prominently in US labour's occupational health movement at least as far back as 1978, when the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) began supporting such activity under its "New Directions" grant program. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) supports an even greater volume of this activity through programs dedicated to training workers in the safe handling of hazardous materials. In 2010, OSHA reported that the New Direc- tions program (now renamed the Susan Harwood Training Grant Program) awarded US$10.7 million in grants, reaching 65,732 workers; NIEHS funded $36 million in worker training that reached 217,419.1

The Oil, Chemical, and Atomic Workers Union (OCAW), more than any other US labour organization, is associated with the birth and popularization of the modern peer-led model for worker safety and health training. OCAW Secretary-Treasurer Tony Mazzocchi, legendary for his role in pressing for the Occupational Safety and Health Act that created OSHA and for his association with the martyred Karen Silkwood, worked with New York's Labor Institute to theorize and develop a remarkable method for worker education.

In the late 19th century, industrialization brought many new technologies into use in the workplace, with important consequences for the division of labour. Frederick Winslow Taylor, the founder of scientific management, became a spokesman for the idea that new conditions required decisions be reserved to those with extensive technical education. As Taylor (1911/1998) explained, "the science which underlies each workman's act is so great that the workman is incapable, either through lack of education or insufficient mental capacity, of fully understanding the science" (p. 18). It was the responsibility of manag- ers to give directions and workers to obey. Occupational safety training under this scheme called for academically credentialed experts in industrial hygiene to draft policies and lecture the workforce on following them.

The OCAW activists believed that this attitude was not just anti-labour, but counterproductive from an occupational safety standpoint (Merrill, 1994; Renner, 2004; Slatin, 2001). They were convinced that workers understood a great deal about their workplaces that credentialed experts did not, that unaddressed hazards rather than worker error were responsible for most accidents, and that the passivity inculcated by Taylorism prevented workers from acting to address these hazards. …

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