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May
2013
22

NLRB Grants USW Access to Caterpillar Facility for Safety Inspection Following Worker Fatality

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The National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) has sided with unions in a case pertaining to access to company facilities for health and safety inspections.

The United Steelworkers took legal action following a fatal accident at a Caterpillar facility. In NLRB case No. 97, Caterpillar objected to the request for access to the facility claiming that providing photographs and video would be sufficient information for the union to conduct their inspection.  The union claimed that being denied access to the facilitiy violated the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA).  Caterpillar rejected the union’s request on the following grounds:

First, the company noted that it had conducted an accident re-creation, which it allowed the union’s steward to attend, and had also provided a video recording of the re-creation to the union’s safety specialist. Further, the company provided copies of post-accident photographs and the local police department’s investigation file to the union. Finally, the company pointed out that the union also represented one of the company’s primary competitors, and stated that the company wanted to maintain the confidentiality of its manufacturing procedures.

This did not meet United Steelworker standards for a thorough investigation. The fatality of a worker raised the stakes and the union insisted on discovering the cause of the accident to ensure a similar incident does not reoccur.  They argued that only an on-site investigation could provide the needed answers:

The union asserted that photographs and video recordings could not take the place of an on-site inspection, because only being physically present at the location of the accident would give the safety specialist a full understanding of the lines of sight, angles, and physical dimensions of the work area. Further, the union noted that the police department had been unable to determine the precise cause of the accident during its investigation. The union argued that it needed access to the employer’s facility in order conduct an independent investigation, which would allow the union to then engage in informed dialogue with the company about methods for preventing future accidents.

Cases like these walk a fine legal line as the NLRB must consider worker safety, union rights and an employer’s right to control its property.  In this instance the balance of power was tipped in the workers’ favor:

In this case, the Board found that the employees’ representational rights outweighed the employer’s property rights, primarily because matters of health and safety are of critical importance to the workforce.
 
The Board discounted the employer’s stated concerns about the confidentiality of its manufacturing procedures because a predecessor employer at the same location had given public tours of the facility, and because the current employer had continued to allow some non-employee access to the facility after acquiring the plant.

RELATED: USW, Caterpillar to Resume Contract Talks

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