Publix Where working can be lethal

Five workers have died in Publix's Deerfield Beach warehouse in the past eight years. Has the workplace gotten safer? Apparently not.

Gallart's death was among 384 fatal workplace accidents in Florida -- 37 of which occurred in Broward County -- in 1998, the latest year for which data are available. That was a 5 percent increase from 1997. In contrast, workplace fatalities declined 3 percent in the rest of the country that year.

Jose Sanchez, the OSHA regional director for South Florida, admits that he has far too few compliance officers to enforce workplace safety properly, and needs the state's help. A stooped, sad-faced man in his late sixties, Sanchez reviews most inspection reports written by his officers and generally approves settlement agreements with employers when violations are found. He signed off on the inspection reports for all five of the fatal accidents at Publix. Besides Gallart's and Brown's deadly mishaps, these included:

• On January 31, 1998, Henry Yates, age 42, a 27-year Publix veteran, was crushed to death between a trailer door and a hydraulic loading ramp when the ramp descended on him. An OSHA report says Yates may have accidentally bumped the down button, which protruded from the face of the control panel. The agency found no safety violation. Yet the report notes that Publix subsequently modified the down button so it was flush with the panel and couldn't easily be pressed accidentally.

Diagram depicts how Gallart was pinned between the hugger's control panel and the load bar
Diagram depicts how Gallart was pinned between the hugger's control panel and the load bar

• On August 3, 1992, while removing overhead light fixtures, Kevin Miller slipped on debris and fell nine feet through an unprotected floor opening. He died five months later from head injuries. OSHA fined Publix $1000 for failure to install a guard rail.

• On August 27, 1988, Juan Ortega, age 38, got his foot caught on a pallet he was feeding into a pallet-loading machine. He was dragged off his forklift into the machine and badly mangled. A Jehovah's Witness, he refused blood transfusions and quickly died from his injuries. OSHA fined Publix $350 and ordered the company to install safety guards and an extra stop switch on the pallet machine.

Sanchez, who knew about the three previous deadly accidents at the warehouse, has no ready answer for why his office ordered no corrective action after Gallart's death. "Maybe we screwed up, who knows," he says with a shrug. "You can criticize me for making wrong decisions, but my wishes have nothing to do with anything. I could be a Monday-morning quarterback until the end of my life."

After Deja Brown's death, however, Sanchez' office did take some action. Two months ago it fined Publix $7000 for a "serious" violation and ordered the company to place operator-instruction and safety decals on all its tuggers. More important, OSHA recommended that the tuggers be retrofitted with a protective cage around the operator, and a safety guard over the reverse button. Those recommendations, however, went beyond federal safety standards, so OSHA had no authority to enforce them, Sanchez explains.

Steve Field, of the University of South Florida, says OSHA probably issued a serious violation after the second tugger death because the staff considered Publix remiss in not implementing safety measures after the first one. "You would expect the company's site safety committee to go over the cause and take immediate remedial action, so that it would never happen again," says Field, who reviewed the OSHA inspection reports on the two tugger deaths. "If it does happen again, that means no action was taken."

Remarkably Sanchez says his office has not checked to see if Publix complied with the order requiring safety markings. "Typically we rely on what the employer puts in writing," he explains. "The only time we follow up is when we have doubt that the employer will correct the condition." As far as the crucial retrofitting recommendations, Sanchez takes an even more laissez-faire stance. "I don't know if Publix agreed to do that," he says. "We can't enforce that. The employer can take it or leave it."

If Sanchez had bothered to dispatch an inspector, he would have found that his agency's orders and recommendations have had little impact. A tour of the warehouse last month revealed that Publix had not installed protective cages or bars on its tuggers. Workers at the plant report that the tuggers have not been retrofitted with guards on the reverse button, either. And even though Publix assured OSHA in writing in December that its tuggers now have operator-instruction decals and markings for the horn and reverse buttons, workers say only some of the machines currently have these.

The manufacturer of the tugger hasn't made any safety change either. Despite the two deaths, Nissan Forklift has not added a reverse button guard or a protective bar or cage to its latest line of tuggers, according to RVL Equipment in Hialeah, the company's South Florida dealership.

In other words virtually nothing has been done to prevent another worker from dying in a tugger accident at the warehouse. The lack of action by Publix, Nissan, and OSHA galls Gallart's mother, JoAnn Marble. "Publix pays their little insurance company, then OSHA washes it under the table," she says bitterly. "We're talking about people's lives. Seven thousand dollars is a slap on the wrist."

The government may not be doing much to make Publix a safer workplace. But some workers at the Deerfield Beach site are taking matters into their own hands. They'd like to be represented by a union, which could bring in its own safety engineers to examine working conditions, recommend moderation of the tough production quotas, and press for safety improvements.

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