Last Thursday, March 6, marked the one-year anniversary of the death of Eleazar Torres-Gomez, who was killed while operating an industrial dryer at Tulsa's Cintas laundry facility.
Some longtime critics of the Ohio-based laundry giant are marking the occasion by speaking out against Cintas' long and persistent history of well-documented safety violations, and what they see as the company's unwillingness to reform in the aftermath of Torres-Gomez's fatal accident.
"One year after the tragic and preventable death of Eleazar Torres-Gomez, Cintas still refused to take the steps necessary to protect its workers," said Congressman Phil Hare (D-IL) in a written statement last week.
Prior to his legislative career, Hare was the president of the Rock Island, Ill. chapter of one Cintas' longtime detractors, the UNITE HERE union, which echoed the lawmaker's comments in its own statement announcing the formation of an anti-Cintas activist group, the Coalition of Injured Cintas Workers.
"One year after our coworker was killed, we should not have the same dangerous conditions in our plant that led to his tragic death," said Gregorio Delgado, who works in the Bedford Park, Ill. laundry and is a member of the newly-formed Coalition.
"In addition to unsafe machinery, the pressure we are under to meet our quotas is so high that we are working in pain everyday," he added.
On the day Torres-Gomez was killed, he'd begun work around 9:30am near a "wash alley," which is an automated system in which uniforms are laundered and dried. He was working along 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.
Torres-Gomez had worked for Cintas for 10 years.
He and his family moved to the United States from Guadalajara, Mexico in 1987. They settled in Illinois at first, but made Tulsa their home in 1998.
He was survived by his wife, Amalia, and their four children: Emmanuel, 25, Nestor 24, Edgar, 14 and Angel, 8.
Along with the outcry from the aforementioned congressman and union, Torres-Gomez's death also sparked a nearly six-month-long investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
The investigation resulted in 46 citations against Cintas' Tulsa plant, 42 of which 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 imposed a fine of $2.78 million for the 46 citations.
Matthew Painter, spokesman for UNITE HERE, called it "the largest fine ever for safety violations in the service sector."
"This fine is more than four times larger than the previous largest penalty," he elaborated.
Those willful citations are for Cintas having 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.
Immediately after Torres-Gomez's death, Cintas representatives have maintained that he violated safety procedures and instructions from supervisors by climbing on the wash alley conveyor.
But, 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 the same thing.
The day before the accident, there were six separate instances in which workers climbed atop the conveyor to unstop a jam.
Shortly before the conclusion of the investigation of the Tulsa facility, a Cintas laundry in the state of Washington was cited for some of the same infractions, which added to at least 170 other safety violations documented by OSHA since 2003, 70 of which were for "violations that could have caused death or serious harm," and many were for repeated breaches.
"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 Eric Frumin, director of safety and health for UNITE HERE.
Hare recently described the Cintas work environment as "a full-fledged workplace safety epidemic."
"Even as public skepticism grows and the fines pile up, Cintas has done only the bare minimum to protect its employees--continuing to view workplace safety upgrades as a threat to their bottom line," he added.
"Cintas could easily fix these problems, but the company would rather fight workers with appeals and lawsuits than provide lifesaving protections," said Noel Beasley, executive vice president for UNITE HERE.
Within weeks of the OSHA investigation's conclusion, Torres-Gomez's widow filed a lawsuit against the laundry giant for damages in excess of $10,000.
The suit alleges that Torres-Gomez's death was the direct result of negligence by Cintas "for their failure to inspect, service, and monitor machinery."
"Cintas knew there should have been better precautions in place," said Frank Frasier, the family's attorney.
Cintas had initially denied Torres-Gomez's family his workers' compensation benefits, but granted them after Frasier appeared at a press conference in Washington, D.C. with Emmanuel Torres-Gomez, Hare, and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D-MA) to speak out against the corporation.
Frasier did not return UTW's calls to inquire about the current status of the lawsuit.
Representatives from Cintas also did not return recent telephone calls to address criticisms that the corporation's work environment is no safer now than it was the day Torres-Gomez was killed.
However, in August, when the OSHA investigation concluded, Cintas CEO Stephen Farmer issued a written statement that the company had, in fact, improved its workplace safety.
"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," he said.
Specifically, Farmer said, "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."
Representatives from UNITE HERE found his boast about Cintas' superior safety record somewhat dubious, however.
"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?" said Frumin.
UTW asked the same question of Cintas representatives, who responded via e-mail, and without elaboration, that OSHA records bear this out. They did not return telephone calls asking for about which records.
Also, the approximately 400 past and present employees who recently formed the Coalition of Injured Cintas Workers apparently find Farmer's claim somewhat dubious.
(For full details about the death of Torres-Gomez and its aftermath, see "Dirty Laundry" in the August 30-September 5 issue of UTW at www.urbantulsa.com).
Share this article: