OSHA Fines Seafood Company and Temp Agency Following Worker's Death
New Bedford, Mass. – The seafood processing company Sea Watch International has been fined just over $35,000 by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) following the death of a worker at a New Bedford plant in January.
OSHA also issued seven official citations after Victor Gerena, a 35-year old father of several children and originally from Puerto Rico, was killed when he became entangled in shucking machinery he was trying to clean.
Though Gerena was one of the few employees directly employed by Sea Watch, OSHA also cited and fined the temporary employment agency Workforce Unlimited, which employs the majority of workers at the New Bedford facility.
Marcy Goldstein-Gelb, the executive director of the worker safety advocacy group Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH), told Open Media Boston that the Bay State “is blessed with a very rich seafood industry, [but] with that comes quite a dangerous industry, often employing people at very low wages in quite dangerous jobs, and too often using predominantly temp agencies [as] third party intermediaries.”
According to a statement issued by MassCOSH, this “was not the first time Sea Watch was cited for placing its workers in danger. “In 2011,” it continues, “OSHA discovered several serious safety violations during an inspection, including inadequate emergency training for employees dealing with hazardous waste and insufficient respiratory protection for some workers.”
It explains that OSHA cited both companies for failing to put in place procedures to quickly switch off dangerous machinery, for exposing employees to fall hazards, and for failing to provide chemical hazard training to workers.
Gerena’s mother, Ada García said in the statement, that “sons like [mine] deserve life, respect, and dignity,” and she’ll “keep demanding justice for my son, so that this does not happen to other mothers. He died working to feed his family.”
According to Goldstein-Gelb, “obviously nothing is going to bring back Victor, and naturally the penalty isn’t supposed to be a punishment, it’s really supposed to be a deterrent, and encourage the company to fix up the plant, but certainly people in the community feel that especially when somebody is a repeat [offender] that there really needs to be a strong message sent to them.
“It was very important that OSHA cited and fined the temporary agency,” she continued, “because historically they have basically claimed non-responsibility for these sorts of things, [but] they’re the employer, they pay the wages, they place the people in these positions, and need to be held accountable.”
While welcoming OSHA’s ability to fine and cite companies that place workers in danger, MassCOSH is also advocating for the federal agency to have sterner deterrents. Goldstein-Gelb said that “we feel that congress needs to up the ante for OSHA, and provide it with more tools so that it can really be the strongest deterrent it can be.”
When it comes to the seafood processing industry in New England, MassCOSH says “a majority of plant employees are immigrant temporary workers, employed not by the facility they are working in, but by a temp agency,” which “often leads to purposeful confusion as to which business is responsible for training workers on health and safety matters … leaving workers without lifesaving training.”
Goldstein-Gelb said that using temporary workers “means the continued flow of workers who have less experience and often have less training,” and who are “so vulnerable to being fired … [making it] much more difficult to speak up freely, and to raise safety concerns, and so it just creates this climate of fear.”
Both Sea Watch International and Workforce Unlimited were contacted for comment concerning their safety record, but neither company issued a press statement before the filing of this report.