Friday, May 2, 2008

House Holds Hearing on Workplace Safety

U.S. House of Representatives Holds Hearing on Need for Increased Workplace Safety Enforcement

Testimony Given By Emmanuel Torres, Son of Worker Killed at Cintas Plant; U.S. Representative "Appalled" at Cintas' Lack of Responsibility

On April 23rd, the U.S. House Subcommittee on Workforce Protections held a hearing on workplace safety seeking stronger OSHA enforcement for large, multi-site employers. Members of the subcommittee named Cintas as a prime example of the need for stronger OSHA enforcement. The hearing was prompted by the death last year of Eleazar Torres Gomez, a worker who was killed at a Cintas plant in Tulsa, OK after he was trapped inside an industrial-sized dryer. Emmanuel Torres, Mr. Torres Gomez' son, testified at the hearing, stating that Cintas failed to do everything it was required to do to protect his father. At the hearing, citing internal company memos made public that morning, members of the committee strongly admonished Cintas's top corporate leadership for failing to fix the lethal dangers it knew about that ultimately led to the death of Eleazar Torres Gomez.

"An internal memo dated April 30, 2004 notifies company officials - including regional health and safety coordinators - of 'an incident that could have resulted in serious injury and possible death,'" said Subcommittee Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.). Although the memo outlined changes needed to remedy dangerous conditions, "[n]one of these promises were acted upon at the Tulsa facility," according to the chairwoman.

The memo was issued by Cintas Health and Safety Director Rick Gerlach and addressed to top-level managers around the country. Accompanying this memo was an attachment from then Cintas President Scott Farmer, currently CEO of the company, describing two other incidents in 2000 where employees had climbed onto working laundry conveyors to clear jams and fell into a running washer. The 2004 memo was first made public in a Wall Street Journal article published in the April 23rd edition of the paper. To read the article, visit:
http://webreprints.djreprints.com/1938250823306.html

Illinois Representative Phil Hare said, "I was appalled. . .by the total lack of responsibility that Cintas took for this accident and the way the company treated the Torres Gomez family." A company statement released by Cintas in the aftermath of the death was described as blaming the victim for his own death.

"The fact that Cintas blamed my father for what truly is a company wide problem is wrong," said Emmanuel Torres.

Four current and one former Cintas workers attended the hearing and spoke at the press conference that preceded the hearing. They complained of mounting production pressures, repetitive stress injuries, and lack of training at their jobs.

"Even after the death in Tulsa, Cintas was still not safe. By the time OSHA was done, there still was not enough training and staffing," said Errol Ingram, a former maintenance supervisor from Mobile, Alabama, after the hearing. OSHA has proposed nearly $200,000 in violations in Mobile for the same kinds of hazards that led to Mr. Torres Gomez's death.

Eleazar Torres Gomez was killed in March 2007 after he was pulled by an unguarded, automated conveyor into an industrial drier. He was trapped for 20 minutes in 300 degree heat. Shortly after this tragedy, the Workforce Protections Subcommittee made its first of multiple requests for a company-wide OSHA investigation.

In addition to the $2.78 million dollar proposed fine for the violations in Tulsa, federal and state safety inspectors have issued citations for the same deadly dangers at Cintas laundries in Ohio, Alabama, California, and Washington, where a worker's arm was nearly ripped off, since August 2007. OSHA inspectors are investigating workers' allegations that similar hazards exist in the company's Bedford Park, Illinois facility.

Cintas workers throughout North America are standing with UNITE HERE and the Teamsters to gain better, safer jobs. Currently, both unions represent roughly 400 Cintas workers. For more information about Cintas workers' efforts, visit www.uniformjustice.org and www.makeCINTASsafe.info.

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