In the Trenches: Acme is asking for an elevator disaster

In this edition of "In the Trenches," Acme has trouble bearing the ups and downs of state regulations. Remember, only the names are changed to protect the innocent.

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After weeks of haggling, Les Zizmoore finally got his counterpart in the operations department to release the production line so the maintenance technicians could close out a stack of backlogged work orders in the shortest possible time. The agreement was that the line would be down for no more than two full shifts.

The primary reason that Acme, a union shop, hired Jacob Slatter as a mechanic was that he possessed critical skills acquired through attendance at many specialized training programs during his career and had achieved licensing and certification across a range of maintenance and operations activities.

The production line was set up in a vertical configuration that required workers to access each level. Acme provided an elevator for operator convenience. That device was the reason Jacob was perfect for the job. The state where the Acme plant was located licensed the mechanics who maintained elevators, and Jacob held the required license. The purpose of this regulation was to ensure that public safety was the paramount consideration during any elevator repair.

His skills gave Jacob the right of final approval that certified any repairs he performed, supervised or inspected met the minimum safety requirements established by the state. If Jacob signed off on an inadequate repair, the state could revoke his license, thereby affecting his livelihood and future employment. Worse, if an inadequate repair caused the elevator to damage property or injure people, Jacob could be held legally liable.

During a backlogged elevator inspection, Jacob saw that a sprocket was worn and a chip was missing from one tooth. He saw a spare sprocket in storage so he removed the broken one and noticed that the inboard sleeve bearing was badly scratched and showed signs of severe wear. This condition, if not repaired, could cause a mechanical failure. But replacing it meant that the elevator would remain shut down for not less than three hours, a time frame that left about six hours of leeway in the allowable maintenance window.

Jacob removed the bearing and carried both parts to the machine shop, where he tossed them into a Dumpster outside the loading dock. He went inside to update the work order status and to record his findings in the inspection report. The applicable regulations, he knew from memory, required that the damaged bearing be replaced, but Acme’s online inventory system indicated there were no spare bearings in stock. A few more mouse clicks revealed that the earliest he’d be able to get a new one on site was the following evening. This meant the elevator would be out of service well beyond the time the production line was scheduled to restart.

Jacob reported this problem to Les, who ordered that the old bearing be touched up with a file to remove the worst scratches and then reinstalled. Les was adamant that missing the startup wasn’t an option. It had taken him a long time to gain access to the equipment and his credibility was on the line. He wasn’t going to let some worn bearing destroy it.

Jacob pointed out that the regulations dictated that a new bearing be installed, not some reworked scrap. Les warned Jacob about the problems that would befall the maintenance organization if the elevator wasn’t finished before the deadline. He said he’s in charge and would be rather displeased if Jacob didn’t do as ordered and get the elevator operating again.

Jacob took a coat hanger from the coat rack and used it to snag the old bearing out of the Dumpster. He spent an hour trying to refurbish it to the point where he could feel comfortable with reinstalling it with a new sprocket. With the elevator now functional, Jacob pulled out his next work order and continued his assigned route, performing various maintenance activities along the way.

Jacob and the other mechanics finished their work orders before the end of the shift and remained on the plant floor to help restart the production line slightly ahead of schedule. When the production supervisor formally accepted the repair work, Les paged his maintenance technicians to recall them to the shop before they left for the day.

Les waited for Jacob to return. As soon as Jacob walked into the room, Les demanded to know why the paperwork for the elevator repair was incomplete. Jacob reminded Les that an elevator repair of this type required a licensed mechanic. Jacob was adamant that now his own credibility was on the line and he wasn’t going to let some worn bearing destroy it. It was in a loud, angry tone of voice that every mechanic in the room could hear in which Les demanded that Jacob sign the appropriate paperwork before leaving the building. Jacob merely replied that he refused to sign any paper that even remotely suggested he certified the used bearing/new sprocket repair as meeting the requirements and, thus, the elevator was fit for service.

Les immediately suspended Jacob and scheduled a termination hearing. The next morning, Jacob called the state to report the problem with the bearing. He then initiated a grievance procedure. At the first grievance hearing, Acme accused Jacob of insubordination because he refused to sign off on the repair. By the third hearing, Jacob was terminated, an action that prompted his lawsuit for wrongful discharge and retaliation.

How could this situation have been avoided? Would it have made more sense for Acme to outsource the elevator repairs? How should one respond when a potential schedule delay looms? Where is the balance between supervisory impatience and a well-documented scope of work when negotiating the duration of a plant shutdown? Does this case drift into whistle-blower territory?

An attorney says:

In the workplace, “insubordination” is often defined as the willful failure to adhere to a lawful order or instruction. In this case, Les' order for Jacob to sign the elevator repair paperwork doesn’t fall into that category. Safety should never fall prey to expediency, and Les' order was clearly out of line.

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