New Guys


As of the first of July, Doug Oberhelman has taken over as CEO for Caterpillar Inc. It hasn’t taken long for Mr. Oberhelman to make his presence known and plot a course for where he believes the company needs to go. A number of new initiatives have been undertaken, but from what I understand, accountability is high on Doug’s list of character attributes. Mr. Oberhelman spoke at the UAW/CAT joint health and safety training nearly five years ago and appeared to be very committed to health and safety. Since he also signed CAT’s latest corporate safety policy, I don’t think there will be any major changes, but if he was inclined to do so, here are a few things I would suggest.


If accountability for performance is going to be stressed, be careful what you measure. For the last nine years, CAT has professed a desire to be a leader in health and safety. They measure themselves by the number of injuries and illnesses sustained on the job which are severe enough to be reported to OSHA and by the number of work days lost to those incidents. Peoria Journal Star Business Editor Paul Gordon wrote an article this Spring about CAT’s “Sustainability Report” in which he said, It tells how the company, through that training, has greatly reduced on-the-job injuries, by 81 percent since 2003 (from 6.06 injuries per 200,000 hours in 2003 worked to 1.17 last year). In 2009, 124 of the company's 284 facilities that reported had zero recordable injuries during 2009.


I know CAT has made great efforts to improve safety over what it was a decade ago, but does anybody actually believe that there were ZERO injuries or illnesses at those 124 facilities? No injuries that required treatment beyond First-Aid, resulted in work restrictions or days away from work or other criteria that would make them recordable? I mean really, do you believe that?


Achieving such improvement in safety metrics performance would be laudable if it were not for the truths we face here and others face elsewhere. Workers are often disciplined if they report on the job injuries, but since reporting of injuries is mandatory, failure to report injuries also results in discipline. Although discriminating against workers who report injuries is illegal according to OSHA 29 CFR 1904.36 and the fact that we are pursuing opportunities to have the law enforced; can you imagine what happens in some of the other countries where CAT has plants? It would appear that the low hanging fruit (in 6Sigma-speak) for improving safety metrics performance is to limit the number of injuries that are reported. The aforementioned practices do exactly that, but fix nothing in the shop.


Even if a worker reports an injury, there are an ever-increasing number of cases where the injury is deemed not to be work-related. OSHA has very clear guidelines as to what constitutes a work-relatedness for injuries and illnesses. At best some business units appear to be oblivious to these guidelines and at worst, there seems to be an intentional disregard of the criteria. Either way, the end result is the same—fewer recordable injuries and improvement in the safety performance metrics.


Lastly, the way Supplemental workers were treated after reporting injuries left those who survived that treatment wary of reporting anything. These workers were probably the most abused class of workers in the company. Able to be let go for any reason or no reason at all, many were separated from the company shortly after being hurt and that also led to improved metrics performance due t the denial of work-relatedness.


When Glen Barton made his dissatisfaction with CAT’s safety performance known almost ten years ago, CAT had tons and tons of lost work days due to workplace illnesses and injuries and comparatively few days of injury or illness related work restrictions. That was when the decision was made to measure lost work days as a safety performance metric. Think of it, as managers, if your safety metrics performance is being measured by lost work days and you can place an injured worker on job restrictions rather than letting them stay home to heal, you can make your goals. By 2005, the numbers were practically reversed. Those were the days when it became possible to accommodate almost any work restriction. I remember one worker who had two carpal tunnel surgeries within a period of weeks who was called back to work. He had a five pound weight restriction on one hand and a zero pound restriction on the other, but by returning him to work, the lost workdays stopped and the safety metrics were spared further damage.


Work restrictions in and of themselves make an injury recordable according to OSHA, with a certain few specific exceptions. Some in the company are abusing these exceptions by calling actual work restrictions, “preventative restrictions” and not reporting the injuries or illnesses to OSHA.


So, as far as making suggestions to our new CEO as they regard to safety, I repeat my words of caution, be careful what you measure. There are ways to improve safety metrics performance that are positive and provide lasting results, but I have not seen their widespread use. I share Mr. Oberhelman’s desire to hold people accountable for performance objectives, but in my opinion, those who attain goals by other than honest means should be held accountable and the cost of transgression should be high.  


In one of our facilities, concerns about fork lift capacities and ratings have been ignored for months as the plant safety committee worked to address the issue.  The OSHA powered industrial vehicle standard says that all nameplates and markings are in place and are maintained in a legible condition, which is impossible if the plates are missing in the first place. Additionally, if the powered industrial vehicle is modified by the user, those modifications which affect capacity and safe operation shall not be performed by the customer or user without manufacturers prior written approval. Capacity, operation, and maintenance instruction plates, tags, or decals shall be changed accordingly. Furthermore, some of the vehicles were used with other than factory installed attachments without the attachments being identified on the capacity plate as required. Despite refusing repeated requests that the company bring material handling equipment at the facility up to the minimum acceptable levels prescribed by OSHA, management appeared truly surprised when you-know-who visited the workplace to inspect their forklifts. Amazingly, over the weekend, all the capacities and ratings mysteriously appeared on the trucks, go figure.


Speaking of forklifts, do you know what happens when a semi tractor/trailer makes what is known as an early departure from a loading dock? The best outcome is that the forklift and its operator go for a ride in the trailer. The worst outcome comes in the form of a forklift nose-dive off the end of the dock or onto its side. To prevent this from happening in the olden days, drivers chocked their wheels to prevent the tractor-trailer from moving during loading/unloading. After years of failures which caused an untold number of injuries and/or fatalities, someone invented a mechanism which used a standard connection point to lock the trailer to the loading dock to prevent the early departures.


In the Easternmost regions of in our local, the Safe Job Procedure (SJP) required all trailers be locked to the loading dock. I’m told workers at this facility are instructed that they have the authority to reject a trailer backed up to the loading dock they feel it is unsafe. It is rumored that workers and their representatives complained about some trailers which could not be locked to the dock. Persons in charge said that those trailers would have to have the wheels chocked rather than have the trailer locked to the dock as was the procedure. When complaints were made that this practice was not according to the Safe Job Procedure (SJP), the procedure was reportedly changed, eliminating the requirement that the trailers be locked to the loading dock—amazing!


Workers injured on the job are held to every comma, crossed “t” and dotted “i” in a Safe Job Procedure during incident investigations. If there is any variation from the SJP, the worker is subject to disciplinary action up to and including discharge. SJP’s, if used as intended, alert workers to specific hazards associated with  job tasks and educate them to use the required equipment and methods to prevent exposure to the hazards which can cause injuries. The idea that an SJP was made less protective by eliminating the required use of proven industry standard safety technology in the name of expediency is shocking. If a worker did something like that, they would be on the outside looking in.


Have you ever heard the old saying, “you get what you pay for”? At TTTBU recently, lifting devices manufactured by one specific contractor were reportedly failing at a pretty high rate. One lifting device was inspected as a result of a complaint regarding a bent component. The concerned worker was assured that the device was safe to use. The device failed hours later. Within days of that incident, two more lifting devices manufactured by the same outfit failed and now, the contractor has disappeared.


I know all of the business units are still holding tight to their purse strings, but some things don’t pass the smell test. Recently, a worker at TTTBU broke his hand in several places in a work-related accident. The worker reported the injury and since there was nobody onsite to treat him, the injured worker was instructed to call a cab for transport to the hospital. I guess with the exorbitant wages being paid to security/medical, the decade’s old practice of transporting injured workers to the hospital must have gotten too expensive. I’m just glad the worker didn’t go into shock in the back of the cab.


As you’ve no doubt read in the Bargaining Chairman’s Report, Wes Hogsett has taken a position in the UAW Ag/Imp Department. Wes always has been and will continue to be a proud member of this local union and will do a great job for us in Detroit and here at the CAT locals. Moving forward, I’d like to see the entire local support Rick DeGroot as the new Bargaining Chairman for Local 974. I’ve worked with and around Rick at the Tech Center for 30 years and he is a great union man and up to the challenge at hand. Leaders lead, and that’s what Rick will do, but he will only be able to go as far as the level of support we give him.


I’ve had dozens of people ask me about the upcoming negotiations. If you’ve not been through the process before, remember that during contract negotiations, nothing has ever been or ever will be given to us. We will seek a fair contract from Caterpillar, formulating a proposal commensurate to our contributions to this $50 billion dollar a year company. The one thing that we have to do is stand together, because at the end of the process of contract negotiations it will be you that has the ultimate voice.


The great labor leader A. Philip Randolph said this, At the banquet table of nature, there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can't take anything, you won't get anything, and if you can't hold anything, you won't keep anything. And you can't take anything without organization.



Steve Mitchell