Déjà vu All Over Again

Congratulations, you’ve made it to 2011 and I wish you a Happy and Safe New Year. As you read this, negotiations with Caterpillar are well underway, and I would like you to remember the immortal words of Hall of Fame baseball player and manager, Yogi Berra, “It seems like déjà vu all over again”. Berra explained that this quote originated when he witnessed Mickey Mantle and Roger Maris repeatedly hit back to back home runs.

Although it has been six years since the last round of bargaining, this too seems eerily familiar. The health and safety issues faced by Caterpillar workers today are very similar, if not worse, than they were in 2004.  My assessment of the daily reality faced by UAW-represented workers stands in stark contrast to the claims made by Caterpillar. The claims made on the CAT website in the Sustainability Metrics from August year to date, that 146 of 287 facilities reported no recordable injuries and 205 of the 287 have reported zero lost work days are incredible! Incredible is defined by Miriam-Webster as, too extraordinary and improbable to be believed.

In addition, there appears to be a difference between what Caterpillar says about worker health and safety and what they do. On one hand, they made these world-class claims about their injury and illness statistics, and on the other hand, corporate safety officials admitted to union representatives that Caterpillar had not even achieved the level of basic compliance with OSHA regulations. Compliance with OSHA regulations is the absolute minimum level of safety allowable by law-similar to minimum wage.

You wouldn’t work for minimum wage would you? Surely, you’re worth more than that, aren’t you? What would happen if you gave the minimum acceptable level of productivity, quality or attendance at work? How long do you think that would continue before bad things started to happen to you? So if your work is worth more than minimum wage, why is a less than minimum level of workplace health and safety compliance acceptable?

Employers are required by OSHA to improve workplace health & safety by putting systems in place for workers to report hazards, near misses, and injuries and illnesses. These reports are fantastic opportunities for management to improve the safety of your work area or working conditions. But at CAT, it is not uncommon for someone to try to “kill the messenger” when a worker reports an injury, illness, near-miss or hazard.

We, in the shop, face a constant threat of the dreaded “A-word”-accountability.  Isn’t it funny how that accountability transitions so effortlessly into discipline for those of us who get our hands dirty? What about accountability for the supervisor who ignores trip hazards brought to his attention and instead pushes for more production? What happens when a worker follows standard procedure to un-jam a machine and is injured? Usually there is an investigation that doesn’t evaluate the procedure that is used day-to-day, but instead refers to a model procedure in the book on a shelf in the office. Shouldn’t that book be marked, “Not for use in Production, Only Use this Procedure to Blame the Injured Worker”?

What about a policy that says “Bump Caps are required”, but as soon as it gets too hot, the Bump Caps are no longer required? There is another Bump Cap Policy in the area that does not require Bump Caps, but you are subject to discipline if you are injured and are not wearing one. Is this policy in place to protect workers, or is it intended to be used to punish an already injured worker? Once again, instead of fixing the job, blame the worker. Does that sound familiar?

 In the 1990’s, during the labor dispute with Caterpillar, there was a strategy we put in place to protect ourselves from discipline while we were working without a contract. It was called “Work to Rule”. The premise of the strategy was that if we followed every written instruction down to the letter, we wouldn’t be placing ourselves at risk of discipline by some overzealous supervisor. Caterpillar went to the National Labor Relations Board and said they didn’t want us to follow the written procedures they had established as it slowed production too much.  

Is that why it is acceptable for workers to un-jam conveyors or tracks every day without locking them out, but when a worker does this and is injured, they get suspended? The intent of the SJP couldn’t be clearer. It says to lock out the equipment, but that’s not how the job is actually done because the workers don’t have the equipment available to lock out the equipment!

This is not rocket science. The OSHA website says, “Lockout/Tagout (LOTO)" refers to specific practices and procedures to safeguard employees from the unexpected energization or startup of machinery and equipment, or the release of hazardous energy during service or maintenance activities. This requires that a designated individual turns off and disconnects the machinery or equipment from its energy source(s) before performing service or maintenance and that the authorized employee(s) either lock or tag the energy-isolating device(s) to prevent the release of hazardous energy and take steps to verify that the energy has been isolated effectively .Un-jamming a machine is considered service or maintenance.

Another example of déjà vu comes when I hear of workers getting “interviewed” regarding an injury or incident, which involves safety in some way, and they don’t ask for their union representative to be present. Then, after the boom is lowered on them, they say, “Yeah, I should have asked for my rep”.

Those “interviews” or “investigations” are not for your benefit! Without your union representative being present, you have no witness, no advocate, nobody on your side. You end up in a situation where everybody in the room is looking for someone to blame—you.

You have the right to have a union representative present if you are being asked any questions that may, in any way, lead to disciplinary action against you. You have the right to speak in private with your representative. The hard part is that you have to ask. If you ask and your union representative is not provided, you don’t have to answer any questions.

It would be different if these interviews” or “investigations” were aimed at finding the root causes and addressing those causes with corrective actions that would prevent recurrence. In workplaces where there are joint investigations, conducted by trained accident investigators, there is a high level of success at preventing similar occurrences. Sadly, that is not the case at Caterpillar. The end result is multiple workers hurt in similar incidents, and the only other thing they have in common is the discipline.

It has been said that one sign of insanity is to repeatedly do something the same way and yet expect a different result. If you see a hazard, tell your boss. Don’t waste your time with a CI card; ask for your UAW Safety Representative if the problem isn’t addressed. If you are called to be “interviewed” as part of an “investigation”, ask for your union representative. Time and time again, people don’t ask for their representative and what do they get? Déjà vu, all over again.

In Solidarity,

Steve Mitchell