New Bedford Seafood Plant Fined $35,410

June 10, 2014

This past January, as most of New Bedford slept, Víctor Gerena was working the night shift for Sea Watch International Seafood, one of the largest clam processing plants in Massachusetts and the nation. Assigned to clean out a shucking machine, Gerena became entangled in a rotary turbine engine that allowed the machine to shatter rock-hard clams by the thousands. Like far too many food processing employees around the country, he did not survive his shift.
Today, the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced seven official citations and $35,410 in fines against Sea Watch International Seafood. Also cited and fined was Workforce Unlimited Inc., a temporary employment company utilized by Sea Watch to provide the vast majority of its workforce.
It was not the first time Sea Watch was cited for placing its workers in danger. In 2011, 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. The fact that the plant continued to place its workers in danger infuriates Ada García, mother of Victor Gerena.
“Sons like [mine] deserve life, respect, and dignity,” says García. “As a mother, I, Ada García, keep demanding justice for my son, so that this does not happen to other mothers. He died working to feed his family.”
Some of the serious violations found by OSHA included failing to implement lockout/tagout 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, 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.
Throughout the seafood processing industry in New England, a majority of plant employees are immigrant temporary workers, employed not by the facility they are working in, but by a temp agency “middle man,” according to the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH). The arrangement often leads to purposeful confusion as to which business is responsible for training workers on health and safety matters, too often leaving workers without lifesaving training. Because of this, seafood processing plants have become an industry of increased scrutiny by OSHA as they have proven to be so hazardous for workers.
“We are deeply concerned at the irresponsibility demonstrated by the area’s seafood processing plants and 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,” said Adrian Ventura, executive director of Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT) of New Bedford, a local worker center that serves New Bedford’s Mayan residents. “CCT leaders continue to call for a just penalty for the death of their fallen Latino brother, father of five children, who can never work again.”
While Gerena was a direct employee of Sea Watch International Seafood, nearly all other workers were employed through Workforce Unlimited Inc.  According to MassCOSH Worker Organizer Jonny Arévalo, the use of temporary workers puts pressure on all workers to remain silent when experiencing unsafe working conditions, knowing they could easily be replaced by a temporary worker if they raise safety issues.  
“We have found that when plants like Sea Watch utilize temp workers, not only are these workers not properly trained, but actual employees receive less health and safety training than if the plant employed all its workers,” said Arévalo.
Concerned that Sea Watch’s temp workforce would find it difficult to freely provide statements about work conditions with OSHA, MassCOSH urged the OSHA Regional Office to follow a set of recommendations that MassCOSH, along with a national group of safety organizations, had submitted to OSHA’s Assistant Secretary David Michaels in 2013. Consistent with a key recommendation, CCT’s Ventura was able to participate in the OSHA walkthrough of the facility and ensure that workers were aware of their right to speak confidentially to OSHA and to share information off-site in a safe location.
OSHA also reportedly reviewed personnel records of the temporary agency to determine which temporary workers were employed prior to and after the fatal incident.
“Ensuring that temporary workers can fully participate in an OSHA investigation is critical to the success of the investigation,” said MassCOSH Executive Director Marcy Goldstein-Gelb. “We think it sends a very strong message to temp agencies and worksite employers that they can no longer bounce their responsibilities to workers off one another, that they are now both on the hook for the well-being of those who make them profitable.”
According to MassCOSH, since the year 2000, 22 Massachusetts workers have lost their lives as a result of being crushed in machinery – most often due to inadequate machine guarding and other OSHA-mandated safety measures. The Sea Watch tragedy came just five months after a worker was killed when her apron became entangled in industrial baking equipment and 13 months after a worker died in an industrial hummus grinder. MassCOSH compiles fatality data collected by the state’s Occupational Health Surveillance Program and OSHA. 
Per OSHA protocol, both companies have 15 business days to comply, meet informally with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings. Ada García just hopes that the final penalty remains sufficient to deter Sea Watch and other employers from putting their employees in harm’s way.
“God give strength to all mothers who see their sons die in a factory,” said García.