POSTED ON OCTOBER 31, 2007:
Day For the Dead
Cintas workers gather nationwide to recall memory of Tulsa colleague
Shame and Sorrow. Last week in Cincinnati Cintas shareholders met with a crowd of mournful protesters outside the company headquarters as they gathered for their annual meeting.
As his family, friends and co-workers here in Tulsa are still mourning the tragic death of Cintas laundry worker Eleazar Torres-Gomez in March, the ripples caused by his fatal accident are still reverberating in other parts of the nation.
They were felt last week in Cincinnati as Cintas shareholders were met with a crowd of mournful protesters outside the company headquarters as they gathered for their annual meeting.
Clad in black, with flowers in hand, numerous laundry workers, union members, clergy and community leaders stood in the pouring rain to commemorate his death "and to help ensure that his horrific death...will not be in vain," said Matt Painter, spokesman for the UNITE HERE laundry workers' union.
Torres-Gomez's body was discovered the morning of March 6 in a large dryer in Cintas' plant in Tulsa.
He had been working alone during the beginning of his second consecutive eight-hour shift 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 started.
Torres-Gomez had worked for the laundry giant for 10 years.
Cintas Corporation is the largest uniform supplier in North America, with more than 34,000 employees at its more than 400 facilities.
Painter said last week's vigil was intended as a message to Cintas to "eliminate unsafe, illegal working conditions in all of its facilities."
Following a nearly six-month investigation by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration into the circumstances surrounding Torres-Gomez's death, the agency hit Cintas with a $2.78 million fine for numerous "willful" and "repeat" safety violations.
State and federal safety inspectors have also penalized the corporation for similar or identical violations in Columbus, Ohio, Yakima, Wash. and most recently in Stockton, Calif.
"The California OSHA inspectors issued a citation for the same problem that killed Eleazar," Painter told UTW.
"That citation very clearly states that the problem is in the plants' normal operations, but in Tulsa, Cintas blamed Eleazar for his own death," he continued.
Torres-Gomez's surviving family is currently involved in a legal battle with Cintas over the tragedy.
"Cintas has a responsibility to workers, shareholders and the Cincinnati community," said Dallas Sells, director of the Ohio-chapter of UNITE HERE, during the vigil.
"All of them have helped make Cintas and the Farmer family extremely wealthy, but Cintas continues to ignore its moral and legal obligations by shamefully endangering employees' lives."
Cintas CEO Stephen Farmer inherited the mantle from his father Richard, who founded the corporation.
Heather Trainer, Cintas' manager of corporation communication, assured UTW that the company does not "ignore its moral and legal obligations" by allowing unsafe working conditions, and has made changes since the Torres-Gomez tragedy.
"With regard to safety improvements, safety is, and always has been, a major area of focus for Cintas," she said in a prepared statement following the vigil.
"We are always looking to improve and enhance our safety practices and policies to provide the safest work environment for our employee-partners," Trainer continued.
Since 2003, OSHA has cited Cintas for more than 170 safety violations, 70 of which were for "violations that could have caused death or serious harm," and many were for repeated breaches.
Also, since 2002, of the 62 nationwide inspections OSHA has conducted of Cintas' facilities, 36 were in response to worker complaints or accidents.
However, since the accident in Tulsa, Trainer said the corporation has implanted a number of new safety practices, including the creation of a new executive safety council "to help identify areas of continual safety improvement."
The council is comprised of "key Cintas executives" as well as three "nationally recognized safety experts" who serve as consultants to the panel.
Those experts are John Henshaw, a 30-year industrial hygienist who was the Assistant Secretary of Labor for OSHA from 2001 to 2004, Dr. Richard Fulwiler, who was worldwide director of health and safety for P&G for 28 years, and Michael Deak, who was the corporate director of safety and health for DuPont.
In addition, Trainer said Cintas has implemented "enhanced wash-alley safety training" for all employees working in those areas, which includes a weekly review and "reaffirmation of the work rules and procedures for safe operations."
Trainer added, "With regard to the company's response to Tuesday's vigil, Cintas respects everyone's right to free speech. Our heartfelt sympathies go to the Torres-Gomez family. The incident was a tragedy that all of us at Cintas continue to mourn."
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