It’s The Principle Stupid!

Caterpillar has kept the news media busy this summer. First, there was the news of the ruling by an Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission Administrative Law Judge regarding a recordkeeping citation issued at the Caterpillar Logistics facility in Morton.  The ruling was significant enough that Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA, Dr. David Michaels, commented on it in an OSHA News Release. Michaels was quoted as saying, "Musculoskeletal disorders are very prevalent and are significant workplace injuries and illnesses… It is imperative that these types of work-related illnesses are logged appropriately."

In the aforementioned case, the judge ruled that Caterpillar was guilty of not recording a work-related musculoskeletal illness and OSHA fined CAT $900.  In conjunction with the  OSHA Standard , Administrative Law Judge Patrick Augustine stated  that, in order to be recordable, "an employee's work activities do not have to be the cause, but rather a cause of injury or illness," and determined that the preponderance of evidence showed the employee's work activities were at least a contributing, if not the sole, cause of the employee's epicondylitis (

Interestingly, this case exemplifies a Caterpillar belief that whatever the Great Yellow Father says is right regardless of the truth of the matter. In fact, Caterpillar’s actions demonstrate that they are willing to pay whatever it costs to “win” and prove they are “right”. Based on the hourly fees charged by the law firm hired by Caterpillar and an expert’s educated estimate of the billable hours needed to defend the case, Caterpillar spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to defend against a $900 fine. Surely this money would have been better spent improving the ergonomic conditions for our members who work in the logistics facilities every day.

Another example of throwing good money after bad was CAT’s request to have the CAT Logistics ruling reviewed. The request was denied. (Caterpillar can’t accept that they were wrong).  The only avenue left is an appeal to the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, one step below the Supreme Court. In the end, this latest effort probably caused an additional 10-15 thousand dollars to be flushed down the toilet, but hey, principal is expensive.

In late June, Caterpillar was in the news again. OSHA fined CAT $66,000 for Serious and Repeated violations of the OSHA Lockout/Tagout Standard .

Repeated violations are troubling for a couple of reasons. First, repeated violations are exactly what they sound like- identical or essentially identical violations of the same standard. In some cases, the previous violations occurred in the very same business unit!  The Lockout Standard requires that the equipment being cleared of jams be locked out when the worker performing the task is exposed to the potential release of energy.

Second, management stubbornly maintains its position that the tasks involved in their most recent OSHA lockout citations fall into the exception for minor tool change adjustment and servicing activities which take place during normal production. The un-jamming function at the heart of this and the previous cases is specifically carved out of the exception Caterpillar claims it is operating under. I guess those in charge have determined that it is normal for the equipment to jam anywhere from six times a day to six times an hour (or is it that a proper lock out would impede production way too much).

I have a hard time understanding why the company would not want equipment/machines locked out prior to un-jamming, especially considering our members have suffered injuries while performing these tasks. However, Caterpillar functions under the Caterpillar principle-whatever they say is right, no matter what it costs.

Finally, not only has the company been cited by OSHA, we have had Safety Complaints filed in this area on this very subject. Does anyone reading this think he/she would still be employed if they had an issue brought to their attention (multiple times, in writing) and which involved multiple documented injuries to co-workers? Even if there was a way, what would happen if that individual did the same exact thing again? Isn’t doing the same thing and expecting a different result a sign of insanity?

The real shame is that we recently had a tragedy in one of our plants involving the same issue, so why are things continuing to be done in the same manner? Is being right no matter what that important or is it just the principal?

A last little bit of irony came as a result of my recent Code of Conduct training. As I write this, we have one business unit Safety Chairman who has been fired for some trumped up offense and another Alternate Safety Chairman who had his job eliminated after processing a Safety Complaint. I’m pretty sure I read something in the “Code” about not retaliating against people and thought I’d made a mistake, but then I saw this story

 From what I understand, the guy in the article cited above was a global tax strategy manager, and he blew the whistle on a scheme CAT was running on the government (you know…we the people). In a nutshell, CAT is accused of operating a kind of sham storefront logistics operation in Switzerland with no employees or parts. If the allegations are true, there appears to be over TWO BILLION reasons for CAT to engage in this 60 Minutes-like tax dodge operation.

Anyway, the manager claims to have been reassigned, demoted and denied promotions and bonuses after pointing out the potential illegality of this scam. According to the story, after all this stuff hit the fan, he was offered all of the lost money back on the condition he would stop accusing Caterpillar of any “unlawful, unethical or improper conduct”—the Code says we’re not supposed to pay bribes either.

The news stories cited above do not paint a very flattering picture of CAT and that’s not good news for any of us. For as much good as the company does in the communities in which we live, I’m curious about the justifications used for some decisions made that affect those inside the gates. Why is there such a disconnect between what is said and what is done?

The most precious thing we have is our health and safety, and for us for without it all the rest is pretty much worthless. We have the right to a safe and healthy workplace and the obligation to do what is necessary to get it. These are some of the principles we believe in.

At a time when it seems like “being right” has become more important than what is right, we all need to stand together. If there is a health or safety problem you are aware of that affects you or your co-workers, report it to your supervisor and your union representative. Your UAW Safety Representative is there to advocate for you, but we have to take the first steps together. Our Safety Complaint Procedure was agreed upon in the recent negotiations-use it. Instead of all the substitute methods for reporting hazards like C/I cards and suggestion boxes, call for your UAW Safety representative.

We all know people who are afraid to report injuries or illnesses for fear of what will happen, is that right? What is safety metrics performance so important that it causes so many otherwise good people to take such actions?  There are so many reasons that people are discouraged from doing what is right, regardless of the flowery words of the Code of Conduct. It just goes to show you how expensive principle really is.