WASHINGTON May 16 General Motors Co
warned its engineers against using the words "safety" and
"defect" when identifying product risks, and explicitly told
them not to use inflammatory terms including "widow-maker" and
"Hindenburg," according to company documents released by the
U.S. government on Friday.
U.S. officials, in announcing a $35 million fine against GM
for its delayed response to a deadly ignition switch flaw in
certain vehicles, say the documents show a
dangerous company culture.
The confidential GM training documents, which were used
during a 2008 technical learning symposium, give engineers
replacement words. The company advised them to use "does not
perform to design" instead of "defect," and "condition" instead
David Friedman, the acting head of the National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration, said the materials robbed the
company of essential terms needed for engineers and
investigators to clearly flag problems to higher-ups.
"GM must rethink the corporate philosophy reflected in the
documents we reviewed," Friedman said.
The Detroit automaker is facing multiple investigations into
why it took more than a decade to respond to evidence of a
deadly ignition switch flaw that has been linked to at least 13
deaths. It has recalled 2.6 million vehicles due to the risk
that the cars can unexpectedly stall, disabling air bags, power
steering and power brakes.
A spokesman for GM, Greg Martin, said the company's culture
has changed since the 2008 training session and cited a program
the company has put in place to encourage candid conversation
about safety issues among GM engineers.
"Today's GM encourages employees to discuss safety issues,
which is reinforced through GM's recently announced Speak Up for
Safety Program," Martin said in a statement.
The 2008 documents released on Friday show a GM highly
sensitive to how engineers' testing reports could make their way
outside the company. One slide referenced "the brutal facts"
that recalls and NHTSA investigations were grabbing headlines
"For anything you say or do, ask yourself how you would
react if it was reported in a major newspaper or on television,"
the documents said.
In a particularly colorful section, the slides sternly
warned engineers against embellishment and "judgment words."
One slide includes dozens of words or phrases that should be
avoided, including: "asphyxiating," "deathtrap,"
"disemboweling," "genocide," "grenadelike," "Hindenburg,"
"powder keg," "rolling sarcophagus," "Titanic," and "you're
(Editing by Karey Van Hall and Matthew Lewis)