Fish Processing Death Spurs Worker Action for Safety

July 17, 2014

For the family of Victor Gerena, January 14, 2014 was the start of a long, painful process from which they will never fully heal. That morning, Gerena was working the night shift for Sea Watch International Seafood in New Bedford when he became entangled in a rotary turbine engine. He died a few hours later of his injuries.

“Sons like [mine] deserve life, respect, and dignity. He died working to feed his family,” said Ada García, Gerena’s mother. “As a mother, I keep demanding justice for my son so that this does not happen to other mothers.”

Infuriated by Gerena’s death, just three years after OSHA cited the company for serious safety violations, MassCOSH’s Worker Center joined forces with Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT) of New Bedford to ensure that Sea Watch’s other employees, nearly all temporary workers, were safe. MassCOSH and CCT urged the OSHA regional office to carefully follow a platform of new temporary worker recommendations developed by MassCOSH, National COSH and the National Staffing Workers Alliance to ensure that the federal safety agency actively engaged vulnerable temp workers in their investigation and maximized the workers’ protection from retaliation.   

Brenda Gordon, Area Director of OSHA’s Boston and Southeastern Massachusetts office, was immediately receptive to the recommendations. Consistent with national OSHA policy, CCT Executive Director Adrian Ventura was granted permission to participate in the OSHA walk-through of the worksite – a first for an investigation in this region.  In doing so, Ventura was able to re-assure the vulnerable temporary workforce that make up almost all of Sea Watch’s workers that they could speak to OSHA investigators in a confidential setting free from fear of being fired.

OSHA also abided by other recommendations, including:

  • Gathering personnel information from the temporary agency to be sure that no workers were fired immediately following the fatality;
  • Articulating the respective and joint responsibilities of host employers and the temporary staffing agencies they contract with; and
  • Ordering the temporary agency to provide OSHA with copies of their “job order form”, a requirement under the state’s new Temporary Worker Right to Know Law, containing information such as type of safety training and protective equipment needed for the job;

As a result of OSHA’s investigation, Sea Watch was issued citations and penalties totaling  $35,410 for serious violations including failure to implement lockout/tag-out procedures that protect workers who clean machinery, exposing employees to fall hazards, and failing to train workers in up-to-date chemical hazard communication methods. Workforce Unlimited Inc, the temp agency contracted with Sea Watch, was fined $9,000 for three serious violations for lack of lockout/tagout procedures, lack of chemical communication training, and for exposing workers to ladder hazards.

“In order for an OSHA investigation to be effective, workers need to speak freely and both the temporary agency and work site employer need to be held accountable,” said Jonny Arevalo, MassCOSH’s Worker Center Organizer who worked closely with Ventura. “We think the process OSHA undertook and the citation of both companies sends a very strong message that employers and the temp agencies they contract can no longer shirk their responsibilities, that they are now both on the hook for the well-being of those who make them profitable.”

Earlier this July, Sea Watch settled with OSHA over the violations, agreeing to pay $26,795 as well as implement safety upgrades. To help prevent future accidents, Sea Watch is required to hire a corporate safety manager, form a "management/employee safety committee," and provide training to employees in their native language. MassCOSH and CCT are currently meeting with Sea Watch workers to ensure that they are involved in the process and monitor the company’s implementation of OSHA’s requirements. Sea Watch workers, MassCOSH, and CCT will also meet with the OSHA staff to ensure that the agency holds the company accountable.

“We are deeply concerned at the irresponsibility demonstrated by the area’s seafood processing plants,” said Ventura. “We see the fines placed on Sea Watch International as a step towards demonstrating to other seafood processing companies that monitoring to assure compliance with the law can and will be done.”