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Court slams Caterpillar for denying union access to site of worker’s death

A federal court has ordered Caterpillar to allow a union inspector into its South Milwaukee plant to investigate the 2011 death of a crane operator.

In Friday’s decision, written by Judge Richard Posner, the court rejected the Peoria, Ill.-based construction equipment manufacturing company’s appeal of a National Labor Relations Board decision stemming from the death of a crane operator at the firm’s South Milwaukee plant.

“We can’t exclude the possibility that the company’s unexplained, unjustified refusal of access to (the inspector) was intended not only to prevent the union from investigating safety issues and perhaps discovering negligence by Caterpillar but also to demonstrate to its employees that the union can do nothing to enhance their safety,” according to the court.

The plant had a weld shop in which “crawlers,” which resemble tracks of a bulldozer or tank, are manufactured. According to the decision, the crane operator, a member of the local of the United Steelworkers Union, died when a 36-ton crawler crushed him. He had been lying underneath the crawler, trying to unhook it from the crane.

After the worker’s death, the union president informed Caterpillar’s regional manager that the national union was sending an inspector to the accident site. But the company denied the union inspector, when she arrived, access to the weld shop.

The actual cause of the accident, the court emphasized, has never been discovered.

Caterpillar argued that too much time had passed, and that any inspection would likely find nothing.

The company also argued that it had provided videos of a reenactment of the accident, and that they were sufficient. But the court noted that they were short, two-dimensional, had no voice or sound and did not show a worker underneath a crawler. They also provide no clue as to the cause of the accident, according to the court.

“Nothing in Caterpillar’s videos so much as hints at an accident,” according to the court. “To say that they depict a reenactment of the accident is absurd.”

Posner also took Caterpillar’s attorneys to task.

“The company’s brief analogizes an investigation of the cause of the accident to an investigation of a ‘leaky faucet,’” Posner wrote in an aside. “That was in the poorest possible taste—an insult to the memory of the dead man.”


About Erika Strebel, erika.strebel@wislawjournal.com

Erika Strebel is the law beat reporter for the Wisconsin Law Journal and a law school student at UW-Madison. She can be reached at 414-225-1825.

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