Federal officials fined a New Bedford shellfish processing plant and the temporary employment agency that supplied its workers a total of $44,000 for safety violations that contributed to a worker’s death earlier this year, a penalty that advocates decried as a slap on the wrist.
Victor Gerena, 35, a father of five, died shortly after midnight on Jan. 16 after he became entangled in a rotary turbine engine while cleaning jammed clams from a shucking machine. Power to the engine should have been shut off, the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration said.
OSHA cited Sea Watch International, part of a Maryland-based company of the same name, for 11 violations, including eight serious violations of workplace safety standards, and fined the company $35,410.
Workforce Unlimited, a Rhode Island temp agency, was cited for five violations, including three violations the agency deemed serious, and fined $9,000.
Neither Sea Watch International nor Workforce Unlimited returned phone calls requesting comment.
Adrian Ventura, organizing director of Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores, a New Bedford nonprofit that advocates for immigrant workers’ rights, said the fines were light punishment for safety violations that led to a death.
“I’m not happy,” Ventura said. “The company has a responsibility for people.”
Workers’ advocates have long complained that OSHA fines are often too low to get companies to make safety improvements, which can cost more than the fines. That, advocates say, provides incentives for some companies to risk the safety of workers to boost profits.
Ted Fitzgerald, a spokesman for OSHA, said the fines are mandated by Congress and reflect the gravity of the violation, not the value of a human life.
“This was a preventable death,” Fitzgerald said. “It is the employer’s responsibility to ensure all these requirements are met.”
Gerena, a native of Puerto Rico, had worked at Sea Watch for 18 years. He was ensnared by the shucking machine around 1:30 a.m., according to a police report. OSHA said Gerena was cleaning out a drainage pipe attached to a steam valve when he was caught in a rotating shaft of the machine.
The machine was not “locked out and tagged out,” a long-established safety standard that requires companies to provide training and equipment for workers to shut down and power off machinery when it is cleaned or repaired. Both Sea Watch and Workforce Unlimited were cited because they did not train workers in how to use “lock out tag out,” among other violations.
The 2011 death of a worker at Tribe hummus plant in Taunton also involved the failure of the company to follow “lock out tag out” procedures. Daniel Collazo, 28, a cleaning crew worker also hired through a temp agency, was killed when he was caught in a hummus grinder that was not powered down.
The employer, a subsidiary of the Swiss food products conglomerate Nestle SA, was cited by OSHA for repeated “lock out tag out” violations and fined more than $500,000.
Sea Watch International has been a major supplier of canned clams for 35 years, according to the company’s websites. It says the company is the largest harvester and processor of clams in the world and has a line of frozen and canned clam products, including chowder.
OSHA inspected the plant in 2011 and discovered several serious safety violations, including inadequate emergency training for employees dealing with hazardous waste and insufficient respiratory protection for some workers. OSHA said no “lock out tag out” violations were reported at the time.
The company paid $4,675 in fines and fixed the violations. A follow-up inspection in April 2012 found the company was in full compliance with OSHA standards.
The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, a nonprofit that advocates for workplace safety, said that the deaths of Collazo and Gerena show the need for all industrial businesses to ensure they have proper protections to prevent injuries and deaths. Twenty-two workers have been crushed to death by machinery in Massachusetts since 2000, usually because of inadequate machine guards and a lack of other federally mandated safety measures, the coalition said.
Jonny Arevalo, an organizer at MassCOSH, said workers — especially temporary workers, who are often immigrants — are often too afraid to speak out about a company’s safety violations, fearing they will face retaliation or lose their jobs.
He said improved safety is also in a company’s own best interest.
“Companies need to think about protecting workers,” Arevalo said. “If they train them well, you see a reduction of incidences of accidents. And that saves companies money.”