Mr. Eleazar Torres-Gomez, 46, was killed at an Oklahoma Cintas laundry plant on March 6, 2007, when he was dragged into an industrial dryer because of an unguarded conveyor.  Federal OSHA investigated the fatality and, this week, proposed a $2.78 million penalty for, among other things, 42 willful violations of its lockout/tagout standard.

OSHA’s Asst. Secretary stated:

“Plant management at the Cintas Tulsa laundry facility ignored safety and health rules that could have prevented the death of the employee.”

The CEO of Cintas, Scott Farmer, expressed the familiar:

“Any accident is one too many at Cintas, and we remain heartbroken over the loss of our friend and partner.”

He added: 

“Since these events, we’ve been cooperating with OSHA as its inspectors reviewed these incidents–working with inspectors as they studied the washroom equipment, interviewed employees, examined each person’s actions, and reviewed our policies and training records.  It’s important to note that much of what the inspectors found was in compliance, reflecting our long-standing commitment to workplace safety.”

Sorry, Mr. Farmer, I’m not buying it—42 willful violations cancels anything you might say about your commitment to workers’ safety.  (It’s like Michael Vick claiming, “look at all the dogs I didn’t torture.” [skumbag])

Mr. Farmer, let’s refresh your memory on what OSHA found at just this one of your plants:

  • 42 willful violations of the lockout/tagout standard to ensure that equipment is shut down and locked-off before jams are cleared, and a failure to train the employees who were responsible for the dangerous work of clearing such jams
  • 1 repeat violation for failure to protect employees from being struck or pinned by conveyors
  • 3 serious violations of fall protection and other lock-out procedures

As part of OSHA’s announcement, the agency also indicated that they issued additional citations for violations at the Cintas plant in Columbus, Ohio. These included 5 repeat and 2 serious violations for lockout/tagout and machine guarding standards.  And, OSHA has commenced inspections at Cintas facilities in Arkansas and Alabama.

At a May 2007 congressional hearing, the eldest son of Mr. Torres-Gomez, spoke in support of amendments to the 1970 OSH Act, which would increase penalties for repeat and willful violations of workplace safety and health standards, and offer better protections for whistleblowers who complain about unsafe working conditions. (See S. 1244 and H.R. 2049)

When the fatal incident occurred in March, members of the House Education and Labor Committee issued a statement saying: 

“What happened on Tuesday (3/6) is a moral outrage.  OSHA has the responsibility to immediately undertake a full and complete investigation into how, after repeated citations for safety violations, these conditions were allowed to continue, they must ensure that the same safety standards are enforced nationally.  They owe this not only to Mr. Torres-Gomez and his family, but to the millions of Americans who work with industrial machinery each and every day.”

They also wrote to OSHA’s Asst. Secretary Foulke asking:

“…that you launch a nationwide investigation of machinery safety hazards at the industrial laundries owned by the Cintas Corp., the nation’s largest uniform service.  As you know, Mr. Eleazar Torres-Gomez…was caught by a large robotic conveyor used to transfer uniforms from washers to dryers, and died inside the dryer as it operated for 20 minutes at 300 degrees.  This is not the first time there were safety issues with such machinery.”

“Sadly, it would appear that this death could have been prevented. OSHA’s Directorate of Compliance issued a special interpretation letter in on July 7, 2005, alerting employers, workers and inspectors about the need for special protection from robotic laundry shuttle equipment like that reportedly used at the Tulsa plant. “

“We understand that, within a month, on August 8, 2005, at the request of Cintas employees concerned about this hazard, OSHA inspectors investigated the company’s Central Islip, NY, facility, and then cited the company for the very violations which the bulletin addressed. We further understand that Cintas challenged OSHA’s decision, and did not agree to fix the violation until the following May, when Cintas agreed to install commercially-available guarding technology. It would appear, however, that Cintas failed to address the same deadly hazard in its Tulsa plant.”

“For these reasons, we request information about what measures OSHA has in place to ensure that serious health and safety problems identified at one facility of a large company are not repeated in the company’s other facilities. In particular, what measures did OSHA take following the August 2005 investigation of the Central Islip plant to determine whether similar machinery with similar hazards was being used by Cintas at other plants around the country?  What measures did OSHA take to eliminate any such hazards at other plants?  Given the tragedy in Tulsa, what measures is OSHA taking now to address what may be a nationwide problem with this employer or with this industry? We would also like to know what measures OSHA is taking to ensure that state plan states also address corporate-wide health and safety problems that may be present in facilities in their jurisdiction.”

“We furthermore request that you undertake an immediate investigation of all Cintas laundries — both in federal jurisdiction and in those covered by state plans — to determine whether they have the same equipment, and if so, to follow imminent danger proceedings in all cases where the guarding technology fails to comply with the interpretation in OSHA’s July 7, 2005 notice, including notices to all exposed employees and their representatives. If Cintas refuses to adopt the appropriate technology immediately and otherwise provide such protection, we urge you to consider obtaining the necessary judicial relief pursuant to Sect. 13 of the Occupational Safety and Health Act.” (emphasis added)

“Finally, we have received reports that Cintas was previously notified about reported hazards in the Tulsa plant which are apparently related to the death of Mr. Torres-Gomez. Especially if that is the case, we request that the Tulsa investigation be conducted in conformance with OSHA’s procedures for potential criminal prosecutions.” (emphasis added)

Congresswoman Woolsey received a response from OSHA in May 2007 which answered each of these questions, including a signal that OSHA is taking a broader company-wide look at Cintas’ worker safety and health program.

“OSHA has subpoenaed injury and illness records for the last five years for all Cintas laundering facilities located within federal OSHA states, as well as documents addressing the company’s safety and health and training programs.   …OSHA will continue to conduct a thorough investigation of the fatal accident in Oklahoma and will address its findings appropriately.  …Under procedures instituted in 2003, the Department of Labor’s Regional Solicitors must evaluate every case that meets the minimum statutory elements for a criminal violation (a willful violation of an OSHA standard that causes the death of an employer’s employee), and they must discuss the suitability for referral of each such case to the Department of Justice (DOJ) or the local office of the U.S. Attorney.”  (letter signed by Edwin G. Foulke, Jr, Asst. Secretary of Labor for OSHA)

In July 2007, the family of Mr. Torres-Gomez filed a lawsuit against Cintas, three Cintas supervisors and the manufacturer of the industrial dryer in which their father and husband perished.  An attorney for the family said he entered a plea for “damages in excess of $10,000″ with the specific dollar amount to be determined by the jury should the case go to trial.  He noted:

“I can present them [the jury] with the issues of fact, like his earnings and the loss of companionship, but money can’t ever bring back Eleazar, and there are two young boys who don’t have a father and a wife who doesn’t have a husband, and no amount of money will replace him.” (Urban Tulsa Weekly, July 25, 2007)

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