Congratulations, if you’re reading this, you achieved the primary goal of every worker around the world—you were able to punch out and go home after your last shift.   Unfortunately, for too many of our brothers and sisters, this is not the case. These days, everyone is concerned with layoffs and job uncertainty, but it’s critical to remember that when all is said and done, your health and safety is the most important thing you have.

Here are some numbers I received from Stephen A. Yokich at the 2009 UAW Health and Safety Conference at Black Lake that I’d like you to think about.

15: the number of workers who will lose their lives today as a result of on-the-job injuries. 

10,500: the number of workers who will be injured today. 

133: the number of years, on average; it will take OSHA to inspect each workplace in the United States one time.

1/3 to 2/3: the estimated number of injuries to workers that will not reported.

0: the number of health and safety standards that were put forward by OSHA without a court order during the past eight years of the Bush administration.

Speaking of numbers, I recently spent forty-five minutes sitting in my car with a worker outside the OSHA area office, discussing his options after he received a disciplinary suspension. The suspension was handed down based on a technicality, but make no mistake: this worker was disciplined for getting hurt and reporting it.  As we sat in the car discussing the options, the worker asked me if I could personally guarantee that the company would not come after him if he decided to file an OSHA complaint. It was clear that this man was so afraid of company retribution that not only would he refrain from filing an OSHA complaint, he wouldn’t even file a grievance regarding his illegal discipline. These two actions were the only real avenues available to protect him and his family, but he was afraid to use them.

So, once again, without being held accountable for another injured worker or from having to defend its unjust actions in the grievance procedure, Caterpillar was able to threaten, intimidate and bully one of our members into not filing a health and safety complaint and at the same time made certain that this worker would never report another injury.  The injury reporting system was designed to help Caterpillar eliminate workplace hazards, but the company isn’t doing that – it’s just making them harder to identify.

When we build, fabricate or machine parts and equipment, there is a tolerance, an amount by which we are allowed to vary from the mean dimensions or specifications. As long as we’ve completed our task within the specified tolerance, our efforts are considered acceptable. This only makes sense, because it’s impossible to perform any tasks absolutely perfectly every time. There will always be variation from one part to the next, no matter what. I recall telling my foreman one time of a part I welded that although within tolerance, was not exactly correct. He told me, “That’s why Caterpillar gives you a tolerance”. Variance from perfection is acceptable when it comes to the product we build.

But when it comes to worker health and safety, the tolerance is becoming increasingly tighter. If you don’t perform perfectly and get hurt, you’re going to be punished. Never mind that the way the worker did the job was the way they had been instructed or that they way they did their job was with the full knowledge of management, when workers report injuries, everything changes. It seems that responsibility is the worker’s alone.

How have we fallen so far? Why are workers so afraid? I understand that times are hard these days, but do any of us have a job really worth dying for? I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but if workplace hazards are not reported and corrected, the potential for a serious injury or even a fatality is very real. Who among us has a job so good that it is worth getting hurt and not reporting it?

The Steelworkers Union calls this “Bloody Pocket Syndrome” .   If you read the description of the syndrome on the preceding link, you’ll understand that we are not alone when it comes to employers abusing injured workers. The Steelworkers say that rather than face discipline or discharge for work-related injuries, they stuff their bloody hands into their pockets and get the injuries treated outside work. When employers feel they can successfully blame workers for all injuries, they will no matter that the law says they will provide workers a safe workplace free of any recognized hazards. Our employer has recognized the hazards and it is you!

Is there any wonder why Caterpillar has increasingly turned to behavioral observation based “safety” programs? It is because they conveniently believe that workers are responsible for 85-95% of all injuries. I agree there is a human component to all injuries, but there is no single root cause for any injury, there are several contributing factors, but Caterpillar chooses to focus on one—you!

To illustrate the futility of the behavioral observation school of thought, last summer in their Track Talks magazine TTTBU claimed that the tens of thousands of behavioral observations made the workplace safer, but they forgot to mention a couple of things. First, the observations are a condition of employment. Workers are forced to perform them and I don’t know about you, but I tend to just get by on things I’m forced to do. Second, with all of those observations having taken place, why weren’t unguarded weld platforms, illegal air nozzles, damages legs on material handling racks, weld cables illegally repaired with electrical tape, bypassed door interlocks on CNC lathes and unguarded grinders identified?  Why was the lack of access to MSDS’s and poor ventilation on machine tools not identified? It’s hard to look for hazards when all you’re doing is checking PPE.

What more basic right is there for workers, members of organized labor, than to report injuries and exposure to the hazards that caused them? How have we allowed such a good union cause to be subverted to such a degree that workers are fearful to raise their hands and say, “This is wrong”?  I can’t turn back the hands of time and make this problem go away, but I can help. Your UAW Safety Committeeman and Subcommitteeman can’t fix this either, but they can help. The only way we will be able to stuff this ugly genie back into the bottle is for all of us to stand together and say, “Enough is enough”!

 You need to identify hazards in the workplace and make your supervisor aware of them. You DO NOT have to use Continuous Improvement cards to do this, nor consult with your company-appointed “Team Leader” regarding health and safety issues. This is an issue strictly between you and your foreman. Caterpillar and the UAW agreed on the use of the Safety Complaint Procedure outlined in 8.3 of the Central Labor Agreement. This procedure gets results. I’ve had workers tell me they were tired of waiting and getting put off time and time again using CI cards. They are amazed at the speed with which issues are resolved when a UAW Safety Complaint is filed.

April 28th is Workers Memorial Day and this is the perfect time for us to take back the issue of health and safety in the workplace. Your union has invested heavily in the health and safety education of your grievance handlers and your safety representatives. Nearly every business unit has had at least one person and maybe more sent to Black Lake in the past several years for intensive health and safety training. Your safety representative will do everything in their power to help you with your safety issues, but you have to take the first step. Identify hazards to your supervisor and ask to see your UAW Safety Representative. Accept no cheap imitations, insist on the genuine article and ask to see your steward if you don’t get your safety rep in as the contract says, “As soon as possible, but no later than by the end on the next scheduled shift”. As Mother Jones said, “Mourn for the dead, but fight like hell for the living”, so let’s get ready for the fight.


In Solidarity,

Steve Mitchell