May 20, 2015
Every year, far too many workers suffer serious injuries or even death while on the job. Although many of these tragic events occur in faraway countries like Bangladesh, others take place right here in the United States. On rare occasions, when the government decides that an employer has been extremely negligent, local prosecutors will file criminal charges against a company and one or more of its managers or executives.
As recent news reports indicate, prosecutors have now filed charges against Bumble Bee Foods due to the ghastly oven death in 2012 suffered by company employee Jose Melena here in southern California.
Entirely preventable worker death
Early in the morning back in October 2012, Jose Melena was handling routine maintenance work in an oven at the Bumble Bee Foods plant in Santa Fe Springs, California. At that same time, one of his co-workers was eager to place more tuna in the oven and cook it. Without first carefully checking to be sure the oven was empty – and thinking Mr. Melena was in the bathroom — the co-worker stuffed the oven with “12,000 pounds of canned tuna and turned on the switch.”
Shortly thereafter, one of the managers discovered Mr. Melena was missing. He then made an announcement “on the intercom,” asking employees to search for their co-worker throughout the facility and even out in the parking lot. Eventually, Mr. Melena’s body was found. Only then did the workers realize that “they [had] inadvertently cooked” Mr. Melena with the tuna. In fact, his body was found “badly burned in the oven, which cooks at a temperature of 270 degrees.”
Although this event only caused one worker’s death, the level of negligence involved proved horribly unique. As a result, “Two employees of Bumble Bee Foods [have now been] charged with three felony counts of violating Occupational Safety & Health Administrative (OSHA) rules” due to Mr. Melena’s death.
Investigation ends in felony charges
Since this accident occurred over two years ago in late 2012, a detailed investigation was designed and carried out. NBC news has stayed on top of this developing story and recently reported that two of the Bumble Bee employers “willfully violated rules that require implementing a safety plan, rules for workers entering confined spaces, and a procedure to keep machinery or equipment turned off if someone is working on it.”
Potential punishment of employees
Plant Operations Director Angel Rodriguez (63) and former safety manager Saul Florez (42) “could face up to three years in prison and fines up to $250,000 if convicted of all charges.” In addition, “Bumble Bee Foods faces a maximum fine of $1.5 million.”
This is not the first time Bumble Bee Foods has been warned about its poor safety procedures. In fact, California’s “occupational safety agency previously cited the San Diego-based company for failing to properly assess the danger to employees working in larger ovens and fined it $74,000.”
Bumble Bee’s level of concern is questionable since the company has not only appealed those earlier assessed penalties, it has also said that it’s “disappointed by the [recent] charges filed by the L. A. district attorney’s office.” Bumble Bee’s response seems a bit callous, especially since NBC news has noted that, “Prosecutions of workplace violations are uncommon — even in fatalities.”
Assuming NBC’s comment is accurate, it’s sad to think that it takes a mistake this extreme for charges to be filed. However, it’s a positive sign for society that the California investigation resulted in a decision to hold the Bumble Bee Food Company and two of its employees responsible for their careless behavior.
The family’s response
While speaking with CNN, Mr. Melena’s surviving daughter said that she has felt especially distraught whenever she’s wondered about “all of the thoughts that went through [her father’s] head” once he saw the oven door shut behind him. However, she says that the charges recently filed against the company and two of its employees are providing her with some sense of relief.
Careless workplace accidents like this one must obviously be prevented at all costs. If you or any of your co-workers ever notice serious dangers in your workplace, be sure to speak with a supervisor. You may also want to file a complaint with OSHA and request an inspection. In fact, all workers are urged to take this type of action “if they believe there is a hazard or their employer is not following OSHA standards.”
Elizabeth Smith is a freelance writer and graduate of the University of Texas Law School
Featured image courtesy of TomoNews US