Back in April, Twitter was full of talk about an industrial accident in which a worker at a Bumble Bee Foods facility near Los Angeles was burned to death in an oven. The story became active even though the accident had occurred a few years earlier because the local district attorney had decided to bring criminal charges against the company and some of its employees. Today, a settlement was announced:

Under the settlement agreements, Bumble Bee will spend $3 million to buy new ovens at its plant in the Los Angeles suburb of Santa Fe Springs that employees will not be required to enter and implement other safety measures.

The company will also pay $1.5 million in restitution to the family of victim Jose Melena, $750,000 to the district attorney’s environmental enforcement fund and another $750,000 in additional fines, penalties and court costs.

Employees and their families are usually unable to sue their employers in civil court because of workers compensation laws. This was apparently a special deal because the case was brought by the district attorney, although another news story says the victim’s family can still sue Bumble Bee.

In addition to the fine against Bumble Bee, both the plant’s director of operations and its safety director were individually fined and ordered to perform community service.

According to Reuters, this is what happened:

Melena, who had worked for Bumble Bee for about six years, crawled into the 35-foot-long (11-meter) cylindrical pressure cooker on Oct. 11, 2012 as part of his duties.

Co-workers who were unaware that Melena, 62, was still inside the apparatus then packed 12,000 pounds (5,443 kg) of canned tuna inside, closed the door and turned it on. His badly burned remains were later discovered by another employee.

I don’t know any more about the case than what I’ve read in news reports, but I have to believe that the reason the settlement was so large, and the reason criminal charges were brought, was that the plant was knowingly violating elementary principles of industrial safety. One likely violation was failing to provide its employees with the necessary lockout/tagout equipment and training.

It’s a longstanding rule that when workers have to be inside dangerous equipment, it must be powered down and prevented from being powered back on until every worker is out of harm’s way. This is done by having everyone working on the equipment apply a lock to the power switch, rendering it inoperative until every lock is removed. Multi-lock hasps are available so several workers can lock out the same piece of equipment simultaneously.

Lockout hasps

Image from SparkBox.

Every worker has a lock and no one else is allowed to have a key to it.

Lockout violations happen more often than you’d like to think. Even people who have lockout equipment and have been trained to use it get in a hurry and make mistakes—both workers and their supervisors. According to the CBS/LA story, the new ovens Bumble Bee are being forced to buy are supposedly designed so that workers are not required to go inside.

While I’m sure there are ovens that don’t need workers to go inside on a routine basis, I’ll bet they still require workers to go in for repairs. Lockout equipment and training will still be necessary.