Carlos Centeno was a Mexican immigrant that came to America to find a better life for himself, his partner and his son. A hardworking man, Centeno held jobs as a bartender, newspaper deliveryman and a warehouse forklift driver.
In 2010, after being laid off from his warehouse job, Centeno put in an application with Ron’s Staffing Services, a Chicago-based temporary employment agency. Ron’s Staffing placed Centeno with Raani Corp., a manufacturer of shampoos, household cleaners, deodorants and styling gels.
Centeno was charged to clean the mixing tanks. He was offered no protective clothing or equipment to do this job, shy of a pair of medical-grade latex gloves. Every day, his clothes would reek of noxious chemicals and on one occasion chemicals splashed into his right eye, blinding him temporarily.
In November 2011, the open hatch of the 500-gallon chemical tank he was cleaning erupted, showering Centano with an 185-degree Fahrenheit citric acid solution. He was instantly scalded and the citric acid started to eat away at his skin, forming blisters.
The factory supervisors did nothing.
No call to 911
No one from Raani management moved to help or call emergency response 911. Centeno wasn’t even placed in a safety shower to wash the citric acid from his skin. Management actively refused to call for an ambulance. It took at least 38 minutes for a co-worker to drive him to MacNeal Clearing Clinic. He was later diverted to Loyola University’s Health Center for emergency care, where Centeno was found to have burns over 80 percent of his body and a felt pain level that topped the scale. Management did not release Centeno for care until they filled out the company’s paperwork.
Centeno, 50, died three weeks later. The Cook County medical examiner attributed his death to “scald and chemical burns due to an industrial accident.”
“I cannot remember a case where somebody got severely burned and nobody called 911,” said John Newquist, a former compliance officer with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) who investigated more than 100 fatal accidents during his career. “It’s beyond me.”
In a court filing in relation to this case, Raani blamed Centeno for the accident. “Plaintiff’s Decedent knew about the hazards of his conduct, but proceeded with his course of conduct, causing the claimed injuries,” the filing stated. Raani has been cited previously by OSHA for not providing adequate safety equipment, not mandating the equipment’s use and for not properly recording injuries and accidents.
According to an OSHA memo filed May 2012 in regard to the Centeno case, Thomas Galassi, head of OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs, wrote that workers were seen putting their hands directly into streams of chemicals poured from drums.
“Another significant hazard [to] which employees are exposed, as evidenced by the fatality, was the high temperature [nearly boiling] water and cleaning solutions used for cleaning tanks, process lines and floors. Employees interacted with high temperature liquids wearing only latex gloves and tee-shirts.”
Centeno is not alone in being victimized by Raani’s negligence. In one situation, a worker was burned and then suffered from peeling — a manager told him “to leave it alone, it wasn’t dangerous.”
In another case, a worker was burned so badly he needed skin grafts, but the incident wasn’t recorded as required by federal law, despite the fact that the company’s chief executive officer knew about the event. Two months after Centeno was scalded, another worker performing a tank-cleaning operation similar to the one that Centeno had done, received severe burns to his left leg.
Raani gave the employee a written disciplinary notice. “You are hereby warned to be careful in the future,” the notice read in part.
“Instead of issuing the appropriate (protective gear) to its workers and ensuring its usage, Raani Corporation has chosen to blame their employees outright for their injuries and non-compliance,” Galassi wrote.
Rashid Chaudary, CEO for Raani, who was not on the scene the day of Centeno’s accident — Nov. 17, 2011 — told an OSHA inspector that the “wrong valve opened” on the tank Centeno was cleaning, but insisted that “if Carlos Centeno had lived, the decision to not call an ambulance would have been the right call.” This is despite signed affidavits from co-workers of Centeno testifying of the severity of the injury and the lack of urgency that management took in regard to it.
Raani was cited with seven serious violations and six willful negligence violations from OSHA, amounting to $473,000 in fines. In addition, the estate of Centeno is suing for Raani for wrongful death and has filed a workers’ compensation claim against Ron’s Staffing. OSHA hasn’t inspected the Raani factory in 18 years prior to the accident, despite citations in 1993 for unsafe work conditions. Raani may also face criminal charges.
The plight of temporary workers
Temp workers at Raani are not alone. In August of last year, Lawrence Daquan “Day” Davis, 20, was crushed to death by a palletizer machine on his first day as a temporary worker at the Bacardi Bottling Corp. facility in Jacksonville, Fla. OSHA cited Bacardi with 12 violations and $192,000 in fines. Bacardi failed to train Davis and other new employees on equipment lockout procedures; Davis was clearing glass from the machine when another employee restarted the palletizer.
Bacardi, in a statement to EHS Today, stated that, «As a family-owned company with a long history of operating as an industry leader in workplace safety, Bacardi takes seriously any accident and continues to extend its sincerest condolences to the family. Always looking to improve in safety measures and operational performance, Bacardi conducted additional employee retraining on lockout/tagout procedures, updated safety policies and procedures, and completed a thorough review of all equipment in order to prevent such an accident from happening again.»
In 2012, 2.54 million Americans took up temporary, or contingent work, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. Many retailers and manufacturers use temporary workers to meet staffing demands during peak seasons.
A 2012 University of Illinois at Chicago study showed that of the 4,000 amputations that occurred on the job in Illinois, five of the top 10 employers with the highest numbers of incidents were temp agencies. A second study, conducted in 2010 by the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, found that temporary workers had a higher injury rate than permanent workers, based on workers’ compensation claims. Particularly, temp workers were more likely to be caught in or struck by machinery.
“Although there are no differences in the (OSHA) regulations between standard employment workers and temporary agency employed workers, those in temporary employment situations are for the most part a vulnerable population with few employment protections,” wrote the Washington study’s researchers.
Temporary workers are employees of their staffing agency. The hosting company has little incentive to train or supervise temporary employees, as any injuries must be absorbed by the staffing agency’s employee compensation insurance and not the hosting company’s. Many companies see temporary employees as being disposable; they task the temps with the most dangerous, least glamorous jobs, and if the temps complain or are injured, they can be replaced at no cost to the hosting company.
“This is really about an abdication of responsibility,” said Tom Juravich, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “If some of the jobs in your facility are undesirable and dangerous, you outsource them to people who won’t complain. If you have a direct worker who’s injured, you have an obligation to him through workers’ comp. If he’s a contingent worker, you don’t have that obligation.”
According to a Bureau of Labor Statistics-funded project, officials with the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries found that only a third of all companies interviewed would actually log a temporary worker’s injury into their OSHA log, as required by law.
Legal workplace protections
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, criminal penalties for flagrant violations of workplace safety that leads to death of an employee max out with a misdemeanor and six months in jail. Federal prosecutors typically shun OSHA cases, as it is wasteful to expend great amounts of capital and effort to a misdemeanor case.
“It should not be the case that a facility that commits willful violations of the worker safety laws faces only misdemeanor charges when a worker dies because of those violations,” said David Uhlmann, a law professor at the University of Michigan and former chief of the Justice Department’s Environmental Crimes Section. “The company involved as well as any responsible corporate officials should face felony charges that carry significant financial penalties for the company and the possibility of lengthy jail terms for the individuals. Anything less sends a terrible message about how we value the lives of American workers.”
Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) is co-sponsoring the Protecting America’s Workers Act, which would strengthen penalties for OSHA violations.
“In every other walk of life, if a person engages in willful conduct that results in someone else’s death, we throw the book at them,” Harkin said in a statement. “But if someone dies on the job, the rules are different. Even intentional lawbreaking that kills a worker brings no more than a slap on the wrist.”