Second Worker Suffers Gruesome Injuries at Troubled Seafood Processing Plant; Dies Days Later

January 18, 2019

Worker advocates are outraged over the death of 63-year-old William Couto of Acushnet, who died of injuries he sustained on January 2 while working at Sea Watch International, a New Bedford seafood processing plant. Couto’s clothing became caught in a running motor at the plant and he died days later on January 6. His preventable death tragically mirrors that of 35-year-old Sea Watch International employee Victor Gerena, who, on January 16, 2014, was in the process of cleaning a drainage pipe on a shucking machine when his clothes became entangled in a rotating shaft. Gerena suffered gruesome and fatal head trauma.

“Sea Watch International is a killer, plain and simple,” said Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health executive director Jodi Sugerman-Brozan. “The death of Victor rocked the immigrant communities that make up a majority of those who work in seafood processing in the state. The fact that William died in way almost identical to Victor means that Sea Watch sees these tragic losses as the cost of doing business while yet another family forever mourns the loss of a loved one who went to the plant to work and never came home.”

Gerena’s 2014 death resulted in nine OSHA violations, seven of which were categorized as serious. Sea Watch International incurred fines of $25,460. OSHA cited Sea Watch for failing to implement lockout/tagout procedures that protect workers who clean machinery. OSHA's investigation found that plant employees were exposed to fall hazards and were not trained in up-to-date chemical hazard communication methods. Less than one month later on February 6, 2014, it was again fined by OSHA for $1,155 for creating an unsafe work environment.

Also cited by OSHA in 2014 was Workforce Unlimited Inc., a temporary employment company used by Sea Watch 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.” 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.
In the months after Gerena’s death, Adrian Ventura, executive director of Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT) of New Bedford, a local worker center that serves New Bedford’s immigrant residents, offered to work with the plant to create a safety committee for its workers with limited English language skills. The offer was denied by plant management.  
“We are brokenhearted to learn about the death of William, said Ventura. “If Sea Watch took its responsibilities to keep its employees safe, William and Victor would still be with us. If Sea Watch is found to have skirted safety procedures, we call on the Massachusetts Attorney General to file criminal charges. We owe it to these workers’ families and those still at risk on the job at Sea Watch to make sure the plant is held responsible for their actions or lack of action.”
Below are the requirements that employers must follow when employees are exposed to hazardous energy while servicing and maintaining equipment and machinery.
Develop, implement, and enforce an energy control program.
Use lockout devices for equipment that can be locked out. In practice, lockout is the isolation of energy from the system (a machine, equipment, or process) which physically locks the system in a safe mode. The energy-isolating device can be a manually operated disconnect switch, a circuit breaker, a line valve, or a block (Note: push buttons, selection switches and other circuit control switches are not considered energy-isolating devices). In most cases, these devices will have loops or tabs which can be locked to a stationary item in a safe position (de-energized position). The locking device (or lockout device) can be any device that has the ability to secure the energy-isolating device in a safe position.
Tag out is a labeling process that is always used when lockout is required.  The process of tagging out a system involves attaching or using an indicator (usually a standardized label) that includes the following information:
Why the lockout/tag out is required (repair, maintenance, etc.).
Time of application of the lock/tag.
The name of the authorized person who attached the tag and lock to the system.