Bumble Bee Foods, 2 others charged after employee died in pressure cooker

Bumble Bee Foods, 2 others charged in 2012 death of employee in pressure cooker

Bumble Bee Foods and two of the tuna company’s employees were charged Monday with willfully ignoring safety rules, leading to a plant worker burning to death inside an industrial pressure cooker in 2012, prosecutors said.

The San Diego-based company, former safety manager Saul Florez, and Angel Rodriguez, the director of plant operations, were each charged with three felony counts of committing an occupational safety and health violation that caused a death, according to the Los Angeles County district attorney’s office.

On Oct. 11, 2012, Jose Melena, 62, entered a 35-foot oven at the company’s Santa Fe Springs plant to make a repair inside the machine, which is used to sterilize thousands of cans of tuna at a time.

Unaware that Melena was inside the oven, other plant workers loaded several carts that altogether held about 12,000 pounds of tuna, shut the door and turned on the oven, prosecutors said.

Temperatures peaked at around 270 degrees, and Melena cooked to death, prosecutors said. His charred remains were found by another plant worker.

In a statement, the company said it disagrees with and is "disappointed by the charges" filed by Los Angeles prosecutors. The company described Melena's death as a "tragic accident" and noted that an investigation by the California Division of Occupational Safety & Health "found no willful violations related to the accident.

Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey said in a statement that the charges against Bumble Bee Foods are part of her goal of enhancing the prosecution of workplace safety issues.

"We take worker safety very seriously," Lacey said. “Although the Bumble Bee investigation began in 2012, this case represents our commitment to protecting workers from illegal -- and, potentially, deadly -- on-the-job practices."

Rodriguez, 63, remains employed by the company. It's unclear when Florez, 42, stopped working for Bumble Bee. Rodriguez, Florez and the company are scheduled to be arraigned May 27.

If convicted, Rodriguez and Florez each face up to three years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The company could be fined up to $1.5 million.

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