After Tuna Employee’s Death, New Report Shows Companies Play Chicken

On Monday, Oct. 11, 2012, 62-year-old Jose Melena was completing some maintenance in a 35-foot-long oven at the Bumble Bee Foods’ Santa Fe Springs plant when co-workers loaded it with 12,000 pounds of canned tuna and turned it on. According to NBC News, his co-workers had assumed that Melena had gone to use the rest room.

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It wasn’t until a supervisor had noticed Melena was missing and the announcement was made on the intercom that the co-workers started to search for him in the facility and parking lot, according to a report by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health. But it was too late. Melena wasn’t found until two hours later after the 270-degree pressure cooker was turned off and opened. Melena, who had worked at the Bumble Bee plant for about six years, was found inside of the oven burned to death.

Almost three years later, Bumble Bee Foods and two employees were charged by Los Angeles prosecutors with ignoring and violating the safety rules and regulations that led to the death of Melena who was baked in an industrial oven with tons of tuna inside. The San Diego-based company also faces three felony counts that carry a maximum $1.5 million in fines and penalties, says The Washington Post. One of the employees charged was Saul Florez, Bumble Bee’s former safety manager; and the other one was Angel Rodriguez, the company’s current director of plant operations. Both employees were charged with violating safety rules, and each faces a maximum of three years in prison and/or a $250,000 fine.

“Our goal is to enhance the criminal prosecution of workplace safety violations,” Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey said in a statement after the trail ended. “Although the Bumble Bee investigation began in 2012, this case represents our commitment to protecting workers from illegal – and potentially deadly – on-the-job practices.”

Although Bumble Bee had admitted that it was “devastated” by Melena’s death “in the tragic accident,” they still refused to accept any blame for it.

“We disagree with and are disappointed by the charges,” the Bumble Bee Foods statement reads, as reported by The Washington Post. “We are currently exploring all options with respect to those charges and will proceed in the manner that best serves the needs of the Melena family, our employees and the Company.”

The statement also noted that the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health “found no willful violations related to the incident.” So if it is not the Tuna Company’s fault, who should be accepting responsibility for Melena’s tragic death? The following explores why big corporations tend to play chicken when it comes workers compensation claims.

Something Fishy

When it comes to workers comp, guess who is usually left carrying the weight for the big corporations? According to a new report from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, it’s the workers and taxpayers who foot most of the bill when an employee gets hurt on the job.

“The cost-shifting stems from a combination of factors including an erosion of health and income benefits that no longer cover the cost of recovery, widespread under-reporting of on-the-job injuries and the growing practice of misclassifying employees so they don’t qualify for workers compensation insurance,” David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health, told The Houston Chronicle. "If companies had to pick up the true cost, they’d be making workplaces safer.”

According to the report, “Adding Inequality to Injury: The Costs of Failing to Protect Workers on the Job,” the Labor Department estimates that companies only pay 20 percent of the cost for workplace injuries and illnesses through the workers compensation system. How is this possible?

Well according to The Houston Chronicle, more companies are abandoning the workers compensation system altogether, which was intended to be a “no-fault system to treat on-the-job injuries”. Oklahoma has recently joined Texas to become the only two U.S. states in which companies are not forced to offer employees compensation coverage, Michaels added. At the same time, he said, states have scaled back on benefits, making it a struggle for injured workers to pay for their own medical care and lost income. And fewer than 40 percent of eligible workers ever receive any workers compensation benefits for getting hurt on the job; and that’s because in some cases the accidents are never officially documented, according to the Labor Department. Michaels said that some employers think that if they don’t record the injuries, they can pretend like it never happened.

Other times workers keep silent about their injuries, says Michaels, because they are concerned about retaliation or that they won’t receive the medical treatment they need. And that’s why they end up paying their own deductibles and co-pays through their own health insurance. Other times insurers reject the claims, says Michaels, challenging the validity of the accident or claiming that it was the result of a pre-existing injury.

Unfortunately, many employees never fully heal physically or financially from the lost income; and it’s the low-wage workers who bear a bigger share of the burden, Michaels said. According to the Labor Department, workers earn an average of 15 percent less or approximately $31,000 less during the 10 years that follow a workplace injury.

“There are no good reasons to prevent injuries when the cost falls upon workers, their families and taxpayers,” said Michaels.

No solace for the Melena family and the six kids that he left behind.

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