Why is it so hard for CAT to figure out health and safety in our workplaces? Why does Cat say that the health and safety of workers is a high priority, yet what they do does not?  Why, when cited by OSHA, does CAT spend thousands and thousands of dollars fighting the citation rather than fixing the problem? Why are CAT workers, who are hurt doing their jobs, treated as if they wanted to be injured instead of being treated with compassion and a true desire to fix whatever it was that caused the injury?

First, let me say the majority of CAT managers and supervisors have their hearts in the right place when it comes to worker health and safety, and I’m certain that all members of Caterpillar management have heard about CEO Jim Owens’s commitment to health and safety.  Mr. Owens has said publicly to employees, “Safety is the first thing we’re going to worry about. Your health and well-being come first – period. None of the other goals matter if, in the course of achieving them, people are injured.”

However,  even after hearing our CEO’s clear commitment to safety, a few members of management act like they’re singing along, but they don’t know the words to the song. Those managers seem to be in direct conflict with Mr. Owens, because he was very clear in his message. Here are a few examples:

·         Why would some managers knowingly allow work to be done underneath forging dies suspended by a forklift?

·         Why have workers been encouraged by management to un-jam or adjust machinery without following lockout/tagout rules just to keep the line (you pick your favorite one) running? In one area where OSHA was called in and citations were issued, the foreman was shuffled off to another area. Can you think of any other institution that applied this strategy?  How did that work for them?

·         Why were grinders provided to workers without guards or allowed to be used with the guards removed and nothing done about it? At least nothing was done until OSHA was called due to workers being injured by exploding grinding wheels.

·         Why are workers exposed to known fall hazards as part of their daily tasks with little or nothing done to protect them?

·         Why are our cranes allowed to fall into such a state of disrepair that they are hazardous to use? Didn’t an overhead crane fall from the ceiling, causing severe injuries to one of our brothers,  just a couple of years ago? Has anyone seen him since? (No, he “timed out” which is a fancy way of saying he was fired because he was off his job so long trying to recover from his injuries). 

For nearly 85 years, tractors and engines have been manufactured in the Peoria area. Considering all of the injuries and illnesses suffered by the multitudes that have passed through the gates, you would think CAT would have figured out how to make their plants healthy and safe. Apparently they have not and they don’t like being reminded of it.

To illustrate my point, how many of you would like to work for minimum wage? Why not? Do you think you deserve more than the minimum? I think you deserve much, much more. Did you know that in the workplace, OSHA standards are the equivalent of a minimum wage level of health and safety regulation compliance? Did you also know that each and every one of the OSHA standards has been written in the blood of workers who were injured or died on the job? Do you think CAT is in compliance with all applicable OSHA regulations in your workplace?

Why is the minimum wage- level of health and safety standard compliance so difficult for CAT to achieve? Why, when cited by OSHA for violation of the Permit Required Confined Space standard (a standard meant to protect workers from doing non-routine tasks in spaces with known hazards), did CAT spend almost two years and tens of thousands of dollars on high-priced corporate attorneys from Chicago to argue their case rather than fix the problem? (They did finally fix the problem, but a good pipefitter could have accomplished the correction over a weekend. This solution to the problem would have been a much quicker and cheaper alternative).

I’m going to share with you one of the pearls of wisdom I’ve learned during my years as a UAW safety representative, but pay attention, it’s pretty subtle. Here it goes…injuries and illnesses are caused by one thing and one thing only—exposure to hazards. If there is no exposure to a hazard, there can be no injury or illness. It’s that simple.

This straightforward concept gets turned upside down once someone reports an injury or illness to Medical. I received a call from a worker who reported an on-the-job injury. So far, by his account, he’s had to give three written statements regarding the incident. He’s received coaching from some member of upper-level management he’d never met before, and what do you think will happen to him if all three of those written statements don’t match exactly? Also, do you think that worker will be inclined to report his next injury? Isn’t the reporting of injuries a condition of employment? Doesn’t this put the worker in a Catch-22 situation between having to report an injury and not wanting to because of what it will bring?

Why do you suppose intense scrutiny is placed on a work-related injury? Have you ever heard the saying, “What you can measure, you can manage”. CAT measures itself on health and safety using two main metrics-OSHA recordable injuries and lost work days (LWD’s). CAT managers are evaluated on how well they manage their OSHA recordable injuries and LWD’s (among many other things). What do you imagine happens to the managers if those metrics are not met?

One way to manage metrics performance is to discourage reporting of injuries with threats and/or discipline. Another way is to encourage workers not to report injuries by giving them rewards for “safe” work performance. For example, you didn’t report your injury, so here’s your pizza.  Another way to appear to manage your safety numbers is by denying work-relatedness for injuries. If it’s diagnosed as non-occupational by Medical or Safety, those injuries don’t count against that facility’s metrics.

Another way to manage metrics performance is to change the way you score the game. It used to be that workers were given time off the job to heal from an injury or surgery (needed because of an injury), but that time counts against the LWD metric. Nowadays, CAT can seemingly accommodate any restriction. Can you believe there are people in our shops on crutches? How about someone with a two pound weight restriction?

Actually, the best way to manage metrics performance for health and safety is related to my pearl of wisdom. If hazards that are likely to cause, or have caused, injuries or illnesses are identified, prioritized, and worker exposure to those hazards is controlled, injuries are prevented.

Contrast my pearl of wisdom to one of the latest rumored “safety strategies”- mandatory stretching programs for all workers. The premise of the workplace stretching program is that you are the problem, not the crappy job that has hurt every worker who has done it. If only you were more flexible and strong, you could continue to work at that poorly designed workstation and not hurt yourself. The fact is that stretching does not prevent injuries, but eliminating exposure to hazards does. Read this online document for more information on workplace stretching programs: http://www.elcosh.org/en/document/588/d000567/workplace-stretching-programs%253A-the-rest-of-the-story.html

For the sake of argument, assume 1500 workers stretched .2 hours each day resulting in 1500 man/hours of stretching per week and 73,500 man/hours of stretching per year (assuming 49 weeks). Multiply 73,500 by a $100.00 per hour burden rate and $7.35 million dollars would be wasted stretching so you supposedly wouldn’t be hurt. If a worker spends 1,800 hours at work per year, the cost of the stretching program would be equivalent to 40 full time jobs with benefits. 

Hypothetically, I propose that instead of wasting our time stretching, CAT and the UAW should develop a worker-led hazard identification committee. This group of 20 workers (half the time and money a stretching program would cost) would receive free training in ergonomics from the UAW and the committee would be given a budget of $3.65 million per year (the other half of the cost) to fix problem jobs, because removing worker exposure to the hazards on the job will definitely lead to fewer injuries.  

You know the answer to that proposal don’t you? CAT will stubbornly continue to clutch at straws rather than take the hand extended to them by their UAW-represented workforce—why?

Steve Mitchell