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Company ‘willfully ignored’ safety standards in worker’s death

The Tribe hummus factory in Taunton.

Gretchen Ertl for the Boston Globe

The Tribe hummus factory in Taunton.

Daniel Collazo was nearly done with his shift cleaning machines at the Tribe hummus plant in Taunton when other workers heard his screams.

Collazo had become caught in the rotating screws that blend the hummus and struggled to free himself as slowly-winding 9-inch blades kept turning, crushing his arms and part of his head, according to public records. His co-workers dashed to cut the power and desperately tried to untangle Collazo from the machine.

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Despite their efforts, Collazo, 28, died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. But the horrific Dec. 16, 2011, accident could have been prevented if the plant had followed a standard safety practice known as “lock out/tag out.” It requires employees to be trained to cut power to industrial machinery before cleaning activities begin.

Two years before Collazo was killed, federal officials fined the owner of the Tribe plant for failing to follow the safety procedure at another of its New England food processing plants. Tribe’s own consultant had warned that failing to train cleaning workers in lock out/tag out created “an extreme safety risk,” records show, and said “the probability that a fatality could occur is likely certain within a year’s timeframe.”

ProPublica

Daniel Collazo, left, and his brother Gabriel Collazo Torres.

Tribe paid a $540,000 fine to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration following Collazo’s death, one of the biggest fines in New England in at least a decade, according to a review of agency fines.

But details of the events that led to Collazo’s death highlight the limits of OSHA penalties, particularly because the fines it levies often are much less expensive than required safety improvements. Those details were made public only recently by OSHA.

A Tribe spokesman said the company conducted an internal investigation after Collazo’s death and made changes “to prevent an accident like this from ever happening again.”

And the company has passed all safety inspections following Collazo’s death, OSHA officials said. But Edmund Fitzgerald, a spokesman for OSHA, said, “It should not take an OSHA inspection and large penalties and, most of all, the needless loss of a worker’s life, to compel an employer to adhere to workplace safety and health standards.”

Tribe’s owner, Israeli-based Tivall 1993 Ltd., paid $9,500 in fines for the lock out/tag out and other violations in 2009. After Collazo’s death, managers at the Taunton plant told OSHA investigators that they did not have the time or money to update Tribe’s lock out/tag out procedures, according to the records.

Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, executive director of the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, a workers’ advocacy group, said some employers view the risk of workplace-safety penalties as “just a cost of doing business.”

“We know there are employers out there doing this cost-benefit analysis,” Goldstein-Gelb said. “If you’re having an employee do life-threatening work, risking being killed, to not ensure that essential life-saving measures are in place is effectively negligent. And it is reckless and unconscionable.”

Tivall 1993 Ltd. is a subsidiary of OSEM Investments Ltd., one of the largest food companies in Israel. Last year, it made $109 million in profit on $1.2 billion in revenue.

The majority owner of OSEM Investments is the Swiss food products conglomerate Nestle SA, which earned about $10 billion in profit last year on sales of more than $100 billion.

OSEM said in OSHA interviews it was unaware of the safety deficiencies at Tribe. And a spokeswoman for Nestle in Switzerland referred questions to a Nestle USA vice president who did not respond to requests for comment.

Daniel Collazo got a job at the Tribe plant with the help of his older brother Gabriel, who also worked there. The Collazo brothers were part of a mostly Spanish-speaking cleaning crew that worked into the early morning five nights a week.

Gabriel Collazo, who had left his job at Tribe by the time of his brother’s death, said the augers his brother cleaned were often in operation because it made it easier to loosen and hose away caked hummus on the machine.

Gabriel Collazo Torres received a tattoo in memory of his brother, Daniel, in Fall River on April 27.

Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe

Gabriel Collazo Torres received a tattoo in memory of his brother, Daniel, in Fall River on April 27.

Daniel Collazo had lived in Massachusetts just a few months at the time of his death and was earning $12 an hour at Tribe. Unemployed in Puerto Rico, he wanted to earn enough money to buy a house for his 5-year-old daughter, who still lived there.

“They waited for something bad to happen,” Collazo said of his former employer. “They just use people like us — take advantage of us. They just throw you in there and it’s like, what happens, happens.”

Factory manager Erez Ingber, who was on the job only about a month at the time of Collazo’s death, told OSHA investigators plans were underway to hire an engineer who would address safety issues, but it had not yet happened.

OSHA inspectors and police investigators could not determine exactly what Collazo was doing when he died. He could have been cleaning the machine, retrieving a scrubber that had fallen between its blades, or simply slipped into the uncovered machine’s blades, they said in reports. The floor was slick with chickpea paste and soap.

OSHA cited Tribe for 18 violations, imposing the most serious level of penalties because the company had “willfully ignored” three industry safety standards, according to the records. Those standards included “lock out/tag out,” which requires employers to adopt procedures and conduct training to ensure that employees power down major machinery during cleaning and maintenance.

OSHA’s report concluded that Tribe “was aware of deficiencies with its lock out/tag out program for almost two years and made a conscious decision not to abate those deficiencies” because it cost too much. Managers of Tribe’s owner, Tivall, and its Israeli parent, OSEM, toured the Taunton plant several times a year to prioritize projects, including safety measures, according to OSHA reports.

Gretchen Ertl for The Boston Globe

Gabriel Collazo Torres held a photograph of his brother, Daniel.

In 2009, two years before Collazo’s death, Tivall was cited and fined for inadequate “lock out/tag out” procedures and training, as well as other violations, at a food processing plant in New Haven. Tivall shuttered the New Haven plant in 2010, moving several employees to the Tribe factory in Taunton. Among them was Tribe’s eventual chief financial officer and top official at the company because it had been without a chief executive.

Tribe’s safety committee had compiled a “to do” list that included “lock out/tag out” training, but the plant had made little progress toward that goal by the time of Collazo’s death, OSHA investigators found. In 2010, Tribe hired a consultant, who warned that if safety improvements were not made quickly, a workplace death was “likely certain” within a year.

Collazo died a year and a half later and just six months after he started working at the company.

Since Collazo’s death, Tribe has hired a new chief executive, Adam Carr, who has sought to increase the company’s visibility. Tribe finished paying its OSHA fines in April and has embarked on a new marketing campaign: “Hummus made with love and chickpeas.”

In Fall River, Gabriel Collazo, 33, found a new job in construction and landscaping, vowing to never return to factory work. He still keeps Daniel’s belongings in boxes in his bedroom, occasionally wearing his brother’s Nautica cologne. Every few months, he adds new details to a tattoo of a cross emblazoned with his brother’s birth and death dates.

“Every day I think of him,” he said. “He’s with me.”

Discuss: Share your thoughts

Related:

Man dies in industrial accident at Taunton hummus plant

Officials investigate death of employee

Taunton plant reviews US citations

ProPublica is an investigative reporting news organization based in New York. Megan Woolhouse can be reached at megan.woolhouse@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @megwoolhouse.

Correction: Because of an editing error, profits and sales for Nestle SA were misstated in an earlier version of this story.

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