Did the plea agreement between the Los Angeles District Attorney’s office and Bumble Bee Foods LLC go far enough to send a strong message about securing worker safety — while at the same time avoid unjustly burdening processors with threats of specious prosecutions? It’s a difficult question to answer.
The facts of the case are not in dispute. On October 11, 2012, Jose Melena entered a 35’ retort oven at Bumble Bee Foods in Santa Fe Springs, Calif., as part of his job duties. Co-workers, unaware that Mr. Melena was out of sight deep within the cylindrical oven, placed a 12,000-pound load of tuna in the oven and began the two-hour heat sterilization process. He was trapped inside the oven and died. (See related stories on page 6 and on Process-Heating.com.)
It seems clear that one long-term outcome the district attorney’s office hoped to secure with its plea agreement is greater worker safety at Bumble Bee Foods’ Santa Fe Springs plant. Bumble Bee was ordered to spend $3 million on new retorts equipped with automatic chain conveyors for moving baskets into and out of the retorts. (Should the new retort ovens cost less than $3 million, Bumble Bee must pay the balance, up to $3 million, on alternative safety measures at the Santa Fe Springs plant. The company also will pay $1.5 million in restitution to Mr. Melena’s family as well as a $750,000 donation and an equal amount in court fees, for a total settlement of $6 million.)
In addition, Bumble Bee must install and maintain video surveillance cameras in the retort oven loading and unloading areas. The footage, which must show “a clear, unhindered view of all entrances and exits to all of the retorts at the facility,” must be saved for 14 days and made available to the district attorney’s office and Cal/OSHA for review during the 18-month window between executing the plea agreement and final sentencing in early 2017. In addition, the company must implement and maintain a policy of automatic discipline for any violations of Bumble Bee’s confined-space-entry program, lockout/tagout procedure and safety procedures for retort ovens. (The complete agreement is posted on our website.)
Perhaps most striking, at the final sentencing, Bumble Bee must plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of willfully failing to implement and maintain an effective safety program. In addition, the company will allocute as follows:
“Bumble Bee acknowledges that, pursuant to Title 8, Section 3203(a)(4) of the California Code of Regulations, it should have conducted regular inspections of the practices of its employees working in and around the retorts. Because certain of its employees entered the retorts to re-set the chains located there-in, Bumble Bee should have identified and evaluated this practice and updated its safety program to address it.”
Until I read the statement above, had someone asked me, “Did the plea agreement go far enough?” I would have said, “Yes.”