It’s Our Fault


On October 25th the UAW and Caterpillar held their annual joint Health and Safety training for UAW-represented facilities in Peoria. As usual, the most stunning tales came during the facility reports given in the opening session. We witnessed a sorry tale of “have’s” and “have not’s”, and to my surprise heard a new excuse for Cat’s safety record!


The opening plant reports are supposed to be joint reports with input and participation from both the union and the company, but as usual, some business units (B/U’s) in our local don’t understand the concept of working together on health and safety. It showed both in their presentations and their statistics related to the number and frequency of injuries/illnesses suffered by our members.


It’s funny that a number of the companies with exceptional safety performance CAT uses as benchmarks (such as John Deere) actively involve their official union safety representatives. If we can’t even give a joint presentation of the plant report, how well do you think safety efforts are going?


We learned of the latest cause of injuries and illnesses at our plants. “The aging workforce” used to be the group of people management used to blame as our members suffered through Caterpillars historically excessive number of injuries and illnesses. We were considered too old and frail for the demands of our jobs—it was our fault. At the 2005 joint training, the older, more experienced workers were hailed as the safest group and instead it was new, younger workers who management said were at fault for injuries and illnesses—again it’s our fault!


Is there a recurring theme here? For an organization that supposedly pushed responsibility away from centralized control down to the business unit level, most are in lock-step in their desire to adopt Behavioral Safety (BS Safety).


Most of the literature presented during initial phases of BS Safety training focus on the elimination of exposure to hazards—I agree with this part of the concept. After exposure to hazards has been eliminated or reduced to the lowest practical level, employee behavior is taken into consideration—again, I have no problem with this. Where our employer falls short in their implementation of BS Safety is when they “Caterpillarize” it. Some B/U’s want to skip the parts they feel unnecessary, like the part where they eliminate or reduce our exposure to hazards and instead shift the focus to our behavior because—it’s our fault.


In the easternmost business unit of our local, it appears to be fine for a supervisor to notice a trucking aisle obstructed by parts and do nothing about it. But if a fork-truck driver hits the parts left unaddressed by the supervisor, they get time off! The BS concept says that when something is noted, it needs to be addressed immediately by the individual, no matter the payroll. A person who knowingly leaves a hazard unabated is one who should receive time off.


In the period of great enlightenment about safety in this business unit, disciplinary action appears to be the behavior flavor of the month to management. Think nothing of the failure of the employer to provide a workplace free of recognized hazards as required by law. I wonder if the real intent of this policy is to discourage people from reporting incidents and injuries—that’s one way to make your statistics look better.  


In order to assist our brothers and sisters in their quest for a safe, healthy workplace, I encourage anyone who observes a condition they feel may constitute a hazard to their health or safety to report the hazard to their supervisor immediately and document it. If the hazard is not addressed in what you consider a reasonable manner or time, please ask for your UAW Safety Representative, they’re there to help!


For example, if a storage location is so high there is a risk of hitting overhead obstructions or if there are guardrails protruding into a trucking aisle or even if the storage location of heavy parts is either too low or high, report them to your supervisor and write down the time and date of the request. Additionally, if you have questions about the hazardous materials you work with or are exposed to, you have the right to a copy of the MSDS. You should receive it on the shift it was requested. Again, write down the time and date of your request. Sometimes management will balk at the request, but you have the right to access to these documents without their interference.


I’ll leave you with two thoughts to illustrate some of the problems we’re having related to health and safety. First, “the system is perfectly designed for the results being achieved”. If there are too many injuries or illnesses in your building, it is because of the poor way the safety system is designed. Second, “if you do what you’ve done, you’ll get what you’ve got”. Caterpillar, in most cases continues to refuse to address health and safety in the joint manner they agreed to. So, if we continue to allow them to avoid their legal obligation to “provide a workplace free of recognized hazards” (OSHA 5a1) and instead blame the workers without raising our hands, it will be our fault.


In Solidarity,

Steve Mitchell