The former safety manager at a Santa Fe Springs, Calif., tuna-processing plant faces a maximum sentence of three years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine if convicted on felony criminal charges related to the 2012 oven death of an employee.
The rare charges against a safety professional were brought by Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey, who alleges that Bumble Bee Foods, the company’s former safety manager Saul Florez and the company’s plant director Angel Rodriguez willfully violated worker safety rules.
According to Lacey, 62-year-old Jose Melena, a six-year employee of the plant, entered a 35-foot-long oven in October 2012 to make a minor repair. Co-workers were unaware that he was in the back of the oven as they loaded it with cans of tuna, closed the door and turned it on. During the two-hour heat-sterilization process, the oven’s internal temperature rose to about 270 degrees. Melena’s severely burned remains were discovered later by a co-worker.
Bumble Bee faces a fine of up to $1.5 million if convicted.
The company issued a statement disagreeing with the filed charges and said that its safety program has been improved since the 2012 fatality. It also said that the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health (Cal/OSHA) found no willful violations when it investigated the accident.
As a result of its investigation, Cal/OSHA fined Bumble Bee Foods $74,000 for six safety violations, including failure to evaluate and identify the oven as a permit-required confined space, failure to implement a safety plan for working in the ovens according to standards for confined-space entry, and failure to perform inspections or audits related to energy-control or lockout/tagout procedures.
District Attorney Lacey said that her office of nearly 1,000 attorneys and 300 investigators has begun “rolling out to major industrial incidents involving serious worker injuries and death. Our goal is to enhance the criminal prosecution of workplace safety violations.”
Roy Maurer is an online editor/manager for SHRM.