In March UTW reported on the tragic death of Cintas laundry worker Eleazar Torres-Gomez.
Torres-Gomez's surviving family members have recently filed a lawsuit against the laundry giant, three Cintas employees, and Lavatec, the manufacturer of the dryer used by Cintas.
The body of Torres-Gomez, 46, was found in a large dryer in Tulsa's Cintas plant at 5940 S. 129th East Ave. on the morning of March 6.
A fellow employee had discovered him there after hearing a commotion from within the machine.
Torres-Gomez had apparently climbed atop an elevated conveyor belt to dislodge a jam when he was caught by a robotic arm and forced into the dryer just before its cycle began.
The lawsuit claims that his death was the direct result of negligence by Lavatec and Cintas "for their failure to inspect, service, and monitor machinery," as well as from "an unreasonably dangerous and defective product" made by Lavatec and used by Cintas, said Frank Frasier, the attorney representing the Torres-Gomez family.
"Cintas knew there should have been better precautions in place," he said.
The three employees named in the lawsuit were Torres-Gomez's supervisors.
"I think they had a hand in it as well," said Frasier.
He said the plea he's entered is for "damages in excess of $10,000," and that the specific dollar amount will be determined by the jury.
"I can present them with 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," Frasier said.
Following the incident in March, some U.S. lawmakers called for a nationwide investigation of the uniform giant by the Occupational Health and Safety Administration, and labor unions called on OSHA to include potential criminal prosecutions, referencing Cintas' history of safety violations.
"Since 2003, OSHA has given Cintas more than 170 violations for unsafe, illegal working conditions," said the "UNITE HERE!" union's spokesman, Matthew Painter in a statement following the incident.
"Seventy of these were for violations that could have caused the danger of 'death or serious physical harm,' and some were for repeated breaches," he added.
Within weeks of the incident, Cintas chief executive officer Scott Farmer issued a statement that his company was not responsible for the accident because Torres-Gomez had violated safety procedures by climbing atop the dryer.
His statement sparked outrage by labor unions and by Torres-Gomez's family.
The family's attorney told UTW that, while Torres-Gomez did technically break from textbook safety procedures, it was not a departure from the work practices typically used by Cintas employees, due to the design of the machinery.
"Every other worker does it because these pants get stuck in the wheels on the conveyor, and there's no other practical way to get it out," he said.
However, representatives of the Cintas Corporation maintained that there was no fault on the part of the company.
Not only were Torres-Gomez's actions a violation of safety protocol, but the company itself was in compliance with federal safety standards, according to Cintas Corporation's Vice President of Corporate Communications Pamela Lowe.
"The Tulsa conveyor is a newer system with the latest manufacturer-installed safeguards in place," she said in a written statement.
"In addition, this location has one of the highest safety compliance ratings of our Cintas facilities in North America. Although the investigation is still ongoing, it is clear that our partner did not follow established safety rules which would have prevented this tragic accident," she also said.
While Cintas maintained its innocence of any negligence in the death of Torres-Gomez, it has nonetheless tweaked some of its safety measures in response to the incident in the form of increased warning signs in the vicinity of the machinery.
"We have carefully developed our safety programs over the years, and in the spirit of positive discontent, continue to review and improve these important safety initiatives," said Lowe.
Within two months of the tragedy, Emmanuel Gomez, one of Torres-Gomez's surviving sons, appeared at a press conference in Washington, D.C., along with Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) and Reps. Lynn Woolsey (D-CA) and Richard Hare (D-IL), to endorse legislation introduced by Kennedy with the purpose of giving OSHA more enforcement power and improving workplace safety.
Woolsey and Hare were among the lawmakers who called for the nationwide investigation of Cintas.
OSHA's investigation is still in progress, but only involves the Tulsa Cintas plant.
OSHA Regional Director Jim Brown told UTW that he could not release details of the investigation until it is complete.
Several times since the incident in March, UTW has contacted Brown's office to inquire about the progress of the investigation and estimated time of completion, and was told each time that it would be complete "in about a month or so."
The most recent call to OSHA was made this week.
Shortly after the incident, Congressman Hare told UTW, "If Cintas thinks this is the end--this is only the beginning of their troubles."
If Torres-Gomez's surviving family members get their way, the congressman might be right.
"I think Cintas is going to have to answer for this, and this is just the first of several things that are going to be happening across the country," said Frasier.
He said similar lawsuits against Cintas are about to ensue in Georgia and in Washington.
At the time of this writing, Cintas Corporation and the other defendants had not been served with the lawsuit, Lowe said, and so they had no comments prepared.
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