Since the death of Cintas laundry worker Eleazar Torres-Gomez in March, the Ohio-based laundry giant has had to weather attacks and challenges from all sides in the form of a federal investigation, a civil lawsuit by the surviving family, and condemnation in the court of public opinion.
The Ohio-based Cintas Corporation is the largest uniform supplier in North America, with more than 34,000 people employed at its more than 400 facilities.
Through the course of the past several decades, the company has become infamous among labor unions and lawmakers, and lately among the general public, for its sordid history of safety violations and less-than-employee-friendly management practices.
The latest chapter in that history was written about two weeks ago the Occupational Safety and Health Administration proposed a massive fine against the corporation for multiple safety violations at Cintas' Tulsa facility after concluding an investigation into the tragedy that led to Torres-Gomez's death.
His body was found the morning of March 6 in a large dryer in Tulsa's Cintas plant at 5940 S. 129th East Ave.
According to Tulsa Police's Cpl. Gene Watkins, who was the lead investigator on the case, Torres-Gomez was starting his second consecutive eight-hour shift around 9:30am that day in the "wash alley," which is an automated system in which uniforms are laundered and dried.
He was working alone when he climbed atop an elevated conveyor belt to dislodge a jam when he was caught by a robotic arm and forced into the dryer.
After hearing a commotion from within the machine, a fellow employee called maintenance personnel to investigate, who then discovered the body of the 46-year-old worker about 20 minutes after the dryer had started.
The company then notified police and reported the incident to OSHA.
Torres-Gomez had worked for Cintas for 10 years.
He and his family moved to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico in 1987. They initially settled in Illinois, but made Tulsa their home in 1998.
He left behind his wife, Amalia, and their four children: Emmanuel, 24, Nestor, 23, Edgar, 13, and Angel, 7.
Labor unions and federal lawmakers immediately reacted to the tragedy with shock, outrage and calls for a large-scale criminal investigation of the company .
Cintas CEO Scott Farmer didn't do much to help his company's image when he issued a statement about three weeks after the incident.
"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," he said.
Farmer added that Torres-Gomez's action of climbing atop the conveyor was "contrary to all safety training and procedures."
"I'm grief stricken at the loss of a fellow partner and deeply saddened for his family, and for his fellow partners in the facility. It hurts us all," he added.
While Torres-Gomez's action might have been a technical violation of textbook safety procedures, Frank Frasier, the Torres-Gomez family's attorney, told UTW that it was hardly a departure from standard Cintas work practices.
"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, "every other worker" might be an exaggeration, if one Cintas worker is to be believed.
A man who identified himself as a close friend and co-worker of Torres-Gomez, but didn't want to be identified by name, said, "It's our policy to shut the machine down if something gets caught. We've been told and told and told not to get up on the conveyor when that happens."
"He was a friend of mine--he was a good man and a good friend, but he didn't do what he was supposed to do," he also said.
Other Cintas representatives also maintained that there was no fault on the part of the company.
According to Pam Lowe, Cintas' vice president of corporate communications, not only were Torres-Gomez's actions a violation of established safety protocol, but the company itself was in full compliance with federal safety standards.
"The Tulsa conveyor is a new system with the latest manufacturer-installed safeguards in place," she told UTW in a written statement when the OSHA investigation was still in its beginning stages.
Long before the Tulsa tragedy, in July of 2005, OSHA sent a letter to all industrial laundries in the United States warning of deaths and serious injuries that had occurred and could again result from mishaps with automated shuttle systems like the one that killed Torres-Gomez.
The agency's investigations found that the accidents occurred as a result of violations of safety standards requiring guarding of conveyor belts in the form of fixed barriers, barrier guards with interlocks that immediately stop machine motion, or presence-sensing devices that immediately stop the machine.
Within a month of the notice, Cintas employees in Central Islip, New York complained to OSHA of the precise violation addressed in the letter.
The agency investigated and cited the facility, but Cintas challenged the OSHA's decision and didn't correct the violation until May 2006.
At the time of the Tulsa accident, though, Cintas was in full compliance with federal safety standards, Lowe assured.
"In addition, (the Tulsa) location has one of the highest safety compliance ratings of our Cintas facilities in North America," she added.
Such assurances didn't seem to deflect any criticism away from Farmer's comments.
"Cintas apparently is willing to slander my father's good name and dishonor his loyal service to the company in an attempt to avoid a wide scale federal investigation of its safety practices," said Torres-Gomez's eldest son Emmanuel in response.
That "wide scale federal investigation" didn't actually happen, as OSHA's probe was limited to the Tulsa plant, but the tragedy immediately caught the attention of a handful of U.S. lawmakers, who called on OSHA to conduct a nationwide investigation of Cintas with possible criminal prosecutions.
Among them was Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-CA), chairwoman of the Workforce Protections Subcommittee of the House Education and Labor Committee, who called the incident "a moral outrage."
Congressman Phil Hare (D-IL) was also among them, and he also condemned Farmer's statement.
"After nearly three weeks and a congressional call for an OSHA investigation, Cintas now has the audacity to release a statement blaming Mr. Gomez for his own death," the lawmaker said.
"This cynical attempt to deflect attention away from its repeated workplace safety violations is nothing short of disgraceful," he added.
Prior to his congressional career, Hare was the president of the Rock Island, Ill.-chapter of one of Cintas' longtime nemeses--the UNITE HERE union.
Soon after Farmer released his statement, Emmanuel appeared at a press conference in Washington, D.C. with Hare, Woolsey and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to endorse legislation introduced by Kennedy, intended to improve workplace safety and give OSHA more enforcement power.
Frasier also accompanied the younger Torres-Gomez to meet the Democratic demagogue as he unveiled his labor reform bill.
Months later, while OSHA was still weeks away from concluding its investigation, Frasier filed a lawsuit on behalf on Torres-Gomez's widow against Cintas, Torres-Gomez's three immediate supervisors, and Lavatec, the manufacturer of the dryer used by Cintas.
The suit alleges that Torres-Gomez's 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.
"Cintas knew there should have been better precautions in place," Frasier said.
As for Torres-Gomez's supervisors, Frasier told UTW that he named them in the suit just to cover all of his bases, so to speak, in the event that his investigation determines that any of them were culpable in the accident.
"It's much easier to file the suit and then dismiss it than to ask the permission of the court to amend the pleading afterwards," said Frasier.
The lawsuit is for "damages in excess of $10,000."
The jury will determine the specific amount, Frasier said.
"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," he explained.
After her company was served with the lawsuit, Lowe told UTW, "We continue to stand by our commitment to the safety and well being of our employee partners, and we are deeply saddened by the incident that occurred early this year, and we continue to cooperate fully with the OSHA investigation."
She added, "Employee safety has always been one of the top priorities at Cintas, as demonstrated by our safety record, which is 20-30 percent better than the industry average."
UNITE HERE Health and Safety Director Eric Frumin, however, met her safety record boast with a considerable amount of skepticism.
"Cintas claims that their safety record is 20-30 percent better than the industry average, but to our knowledge, they have given no factual basis for this claim. What evidence actually proves this claim?" he told UTW.
Of course, that was the same question we asked, among others.
When asked what that "industry average" actually is, and how Cintas quantifies its own safety performance relative to that, Lowe directed UTW to the OSHA website, with no further elaboration.
As the miniscule percentage of people in the world who have ever tried to glean information from the OSHA website know (a group that presumably includes Lowe), it isn't terribly user-friendly.
In fact, it even sports a disclaimer that its data system "was designed as an information resource for in-house use by OSHA staff and management, and by state agencies which carry out federally-approved OSHA programs," and that uninitiated members of the public are prone to misinterpret its information.
Lowe did not return calls asking her to show how one could arrive at her claim about Cintas' safety record.
UNITE HERE spokesman Matthew Painter did, though.
As he explained, based on data from the OSHA website, the agency cited Cintas for more than 170 safety violations since 2003, 70 of which were for "violations that could have caused death or serious physical harm," and many were for repeated breaches.
Along with those, of the 62 nationwide inspections OSHA has conducted of Cintas' facilities since 2002, 36 were in response to worker complaints or accidents.
"According to OSHA's statistics, over the past five years, OSHA has cited Cintas for more health and safety violations than its three main competitors in the uniform industry combined," said Frumin.
Because of these and other misdeeds, Cintas has been at odds for the past several years with UNITE HERE and other groups.
Shortly before the Torres-Gomez tragedy, the laundry behemoth had been included among the National Council for Occupational Health Safety's "Dirty Dozen" of America's most dangerous employers.
Also, a National Labor and Relations Board judge had found that managers at a Cintas facility in another region of the country had fired a worker in retaliation for petitioning for safer conditions.
Rather than face trial for it, Cintas settled out of court.
On top of strafing Cintas for its various and sundry safety violations, UNITE HERE has also taken them to task for company-wide occurrences of racial and gender discrimination.
According to documentation compiled within a 2004 report entitled "The Spirit is the Problem: Systemic Racial and Gender Discrimination at Cintas Corporation," minorities and women were routinely excluded from promotion to management positions and other desirable jobs, and racial slurs and sexual harassment were commonplace, occasioning numerous lawsuits and complaints with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
Through the wringer
Within a month after the Torres-Gomez family filed its lawsuit, OSHA concluded the investigation it had begun the day after the tragedy.
Of the 46 citations, 42 were for what OSHA found to be "willful violations," which are defined as having been "committed with intentional disregard of the requirements of the Occupational Safety and Health Act or plain indifference to employee safety or health."
The agency proposed a fine of $2.78 million for the 46 safety citations.
If the penalty sticks, it will be "the largest fine ever for safety violations in the service sector," according to Painter.
"This fine is more than four times larger than the previous largest penalty," added the UNITE HERE spokesman.
Those "willful" citations allege that Cintas violated OSHA's "lockout/tagout" standard for failures to shut down and lock out power to equipment before clearing jams, as well as requirements to train four employees who would be responsible to perform the lockout/tagout operations and clear jams.
While Cintas representatives from top to bottom have maintained that Torres-Gomez violated safety procedures and instructions from supervisors by climbing on the wash alley conveyor, according to the citations issued by OSHA, security camera videos showed 37 other instances during the two weeks prior to his death in which workers did so.
The day before the tragedy, there were six separate instances in which workers climbed on top of the conveyor to unstop a jam.
Another of the repeat citations alleges the company's failure to protect employees from falls and to have a qualified person inspect and certify the lockout/tagout procedures.
"OSHA's findings prove that Cintas' inaction led to the death of Mr. Torres-Gomez, despite the company's ridiculous allegations that he tried to commit suicide or was too 'stupid' to operate the machinery," said Congressman Hare in a prepared statement(more on the suicide allegations to follow).
"The thought of how my father must have suffered haunts me and my family every day. I also think about how Cintas could have prevented this terrible tragedy," said Emmanuel Torres-Gomez in a prepared statement released through Frasier's office.
"No amount of penalties will bring my father back, but we hope that OSHA's findings will make Cintas accept responsibility for the unsafe conditions in its laundries instead of blaming hardworking men and women like my father for their injuries," he added.
Cintas' chief exec is nothing if not consistent--he also prepared a statement in response to OSHA's findings, and its content was all too predictable.
"While we respectfully disagree with the inspectors' opinions, we look forward to our chance over the next several weeks to present our insight and evidence to the agency as we work toward a resolution," said Farmer.
Beginning Aug. 16--the day the citations were issued--Cintas has 15 working days to challenge them before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
"In the meantime, we will continue to improve and refine our safety procedures, as we always have," Farmer continued.
"We have purposefully created strong policies and procedures, demonstrated by our safety record that is 20 to 30 percent better than comparably-sized laundry facilities, (emphasis ours)" he said, repeating the good sounding, but unverifiable mantra of Communications VP Lowe.
Farmer concluded his statement, "We have created an executive safety advisory council, which is getting input from national safety experts--including a former head of OSHA--to help identify additional areas of continual improvement. As I've noted many times before, there is nothing more important than our employees' safety."
Shortly before OSHA's citations of the Tulsa laundry, a Cintas facility in the state of Washington was cited for some of the same infractions.
Less than two weeks before the fatal accident in Tulsa, Randy Robinson, a Cintas laundry worker in Yakima, Wash., got his arm entangled in a some coveralls hanging out of an operating industrial washer, resulting in severe trauma to his arm when the torque from the machine's action flipped him over three times until he managed to hit the emergency "off" switch.
The Washington Industrial Safety and Health Administration (WISHA) recently concluded its investigation of the incident and issued a citation on August 7 for, among a laundry list of other infractions, Cintas managers' failure to prevent workers from riding on the conveyors to unstop clogs, as Torres-Gomez had done in Tulsa.
Frasier said he didn't know if the Tulsa and Washington citations would be admissible as evidence in the civil lawsuit.
"Some courts hold that it's admissible, some courts hold that it's not--it remains to be seen," he told UTW.
"Regardless of what OSHA does, I have to prove the same case on my own," Frasier added.
The attorney wouldn't comment on how much of the aforementioned history would factor into the case he's building against the laundry giant.
However, it's probably a safe bet that the jury will hear about Cintas' treatment of Torres-Gomez's wife and children in the aftermath of the tragedy.
"Since my family's loss, the company has only caused my family more pain," said the younger Torres-Gomez in his statement following the OSHA citations.
"When Cintas called to tell me that my father died, they hung up on me when I started asking about what happened," he continued.
"The company's abuse of the Torres-Gomez family has been callous in ways that words cannot describe and demonstrates that the company doesn't know the meaning of shame," said Frumin.
That "abuse," he said, consisted of, not only blaming Torres-Gomez for his own death, but of initially denying the family workers' compensation benefits.
After Emmanuel's moderately publicized trip to D.C., though, Cintas started paying, Painter recounted.
As a further illustration of how horrifically Cintas has allegedly treated the Torres-Gomez family, an anonymous source close to the family told UTW that, when a representative from Cintas went to the family's home to inform them of the tragedy, before the painful news was broken, his wife was asked if they had been experiencing any marital difficulties or financial troubles, or if Eleazar had been experiencing any symptoms of depression--all in an attempt to construe his death as a suicide, the source said.
Frasier wouldn't confirm or deny that this occurred, but said, "That's something that I plan to ask, and somebody's going to be testifying under oath about what happened that day."
No members of Torres-Gomez's family were willing to speak about it, either.
"I can't get them out of their shell; they're still pretty devastated by the loss," said Frasier.
However, in his statement following the OSHA citations, Emmanuel, who lives in his own home, said, "When Cintas called to tell me that my father died, they hung up on me when I started asking about what happened."
Lowe, who works in the company's headquarters in Ohio, denied that anyone from Cintas tried to construe the death as a suicide.
"No one from Cintas asked any questions of Amalia Torres related to (those) topics," she told UTW via e-mail.
Tommy Cocanougher, one of Torres-Gomez's supervisors named in the lawsuit, declined to comment when asked who had visited the family's home and how they broke the news.
"I'm not at liberty to discuss that," he said.
Cpl. Watkins, who led the investigation of Torres-Gomez's death, said he personally did not visit the family's home, but said Cintas representatives were accompanied by police officers to inform the family.
He said Cintas reps did not ask those questions at that time, but police did.
"Those questions would be something we'd normally ask," Watkins said.
He said a routine investigation of such a death would include those inquiries in the interest of determining if it was a homicide, suicide, accidental or natural death.
True or false, the rumor that Cintas tried to spin Torres-Gomez's death as a suicide has been persistent enough to reach the ears of a U.S. congressman from Illinois, as evidenced by the aforementioned comments by Hare about the company's "ridiculous allegations that he tried to commit suicide."
Obviously, Watkins couldn't comment on Cintas' civil liability or lack thereof, but said his investigation found absolutely no criminal liability on anyone's part.
"What happened was just a tragic accident, which is what happens when people get too comfortable around things that can hurt them," he said, prior to the conclusion of the OSHA investigation.
Despite OSHA's conclusions, Cintas still maintains that it was that complacency on the part of Torres-Gomez that led to his death, rather than any negligence or mismanagement on their part.
At the time of this writing, a court date had not been set for the civil trial.
Frasier estimated that a trial could begin as soon as late this year or early next year.
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