Publix Where working can be lethal

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After Gallart was freed, paramedics rushed him to North Broward Medical Center. He was pronounced dead several hours later. The official cause: asphyxia from chest compression.

Pressley was traumatized. Unless you're a cop or a soldier, you don't expect to go to work in the morning and witness a colleague suffer a grisly death. Pressley took a week of vacation to recover. "I felt hurt," he says. "A guy dying in front of you, and there was nothing you could do to help him." He found himself crying a lot, so he went to a psychiatrist, who assured him that it wasn't his fault. On his first day back at work, he started weeping again and had to go home. After that, he felt OK. "It was in God's hands," he says now. "There was nothing I could do."

But there were some things that Publix, the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA), and Nissan Forklift Corp., the tugger's manufacturer, could have done after Gallart's accident. Common sense would dictate that when a worker dies, someone should take a close look at what went wrong -- and make sure it doesn't happen again.

But according to Pressley and other Publix workers, neither Publix nor Nissan made any safety modification to the tuggers or conducted any special training for tugger operators. A month after the accident, Angel Diaz, an OSHA compliance officer, concluded that there was no safety violation by the company. OSHA did not order Publix to take any safety precaution. "Nothing changed," Pressley says. "I was very surprised."

Jennifer Bush, a spokesperson for Lakeland-based Publix, which operates 600 stores in four states and employs 117,000 people, refused repeated requests to discuss safety conditions at the warehouse. She said the company would not comment on any accident. She also refused to say whether Publix had taken any safety measure in response to accidents.

The apparent lack of corrective action in the wake of Gallart's death proved fateful. At 9 p.m. on July 11, 1999 -- ten months after Gallart's fatal accident -- 25-year-old Deja Brown drove his Barrett tugger into a trailer at Bay 140 on the Publix warehouse dock to remove several empty birds. Just like Gallart, Brown got pinned between the tugger and a load bar, which he had failed to remove.

The scene was an eerie replay of Gallart's demise. Brown's chest was pressed forward onto the reverse button, which kept the tugger crushing him against the load bar. His chest also activated the horn, which brought several workers running to see what was wrong. The only way his rescuers could shut the tugger off was by unplugging the battery. Then they pushed the machine forward to free Brown, who fell to the floor. Paramedics arrived and rushed Brown to North Broward Medical Center, where he was soon pronounced dead from asphyxia due to chest compression.

"When I ran over to the trailer, I saw this guy looking like he was crucified, with blood coming from his nose and one of his eyes," says Carlos Herrera, one of the workers who freed Brown. "I couldn't even recognize him. It was awful."

"I firmly believe [Deja Brown's] accidental death could have been prevented had the tugger been equipped with some type of escape or fail-safe device," Broward Sheriff's Detective Michael Boles wrote in his investigative report dated August 20, 1999.

Brown, who was supporting a four-year-old son he had by his girlfriend, was the third man to die in a workplace accident at Publix's warehouse in 19 months and the fifth man to die at the facility since it opened in 1988. Four of the men died in machine-related accidents that might have been prevented with safety modifications on the equipment.

Publix workers insist these five deaths are part of a larger pattern at the 166,000-square-foot Deerfield warehouse, which employs 1500 people. Seven employees, who spoke on the condition that they not be identified, maintain that the company spends little time or effort on safety training. Employees receive only two days of instruction on using the tuggers. They view the manufacturer's instructional video, then take a written test, which requires them to answer true or false to statements such as, "Leave adequate space between yourself and another piece of equipment to stop safely." At the time of Brown's death, there was no exam question testing an employee's knowledge of how to operate a tugger inside a trailer properly.

"Publix might have a safety meeting for employees once a year that lasts 15 or 20 minutes," says Steve Marrs, a United Food and Commercial Workers Union organizer who's been trying to organize Publix workers throughout Florida for the past three years. "The managers just say, 'Don't get hurt.' And if you do, they're pissed off at you."

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Harris Meyer