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Bumble Bee Foods to pay $6 million in death of worker in pressure cooker

On one of his early morning shifts, Jose Melena stepped into a 35-foot-long cylinder-shaped oven at the Bumble Bee Foods plant in Santa Fe Springs.

The 62-year-old father of six needed to make a quick repair inside the massive industrial pressure cooker, which is used to sterilize thousands of cans of tuna at a time.

Not realizing Melena was inside, fellow employees shut the machine door behind him on that day in October 2012 and turned the oven on.

With temperatures reaching about 270 degrees, Melena was cooked to death.

On Wednesday, Melena’s gruesome death resulted in the largest known payout for workplace safety violations involving a single victim in a California criminal prosecution.

Bumble Bee Foods will pay $6 million for “willfully violating worker safety rules,” according to the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office.

“You don’t have warm blood running in your veins if you’re not affected by the way this guy died. It’s horrific,” said Hoon Chun, assistant head deputy district attorney for the office’s Consumer Protection Division, who helped prosecute the case. “I cannot imagine a worse result of violating safety rules than something like this.”

Melena’s death, he said, will force the company to change the way things are done at the plant. The company will pay $3 million to replace its outdated tuna ovens with new ovens that don’t require workers to set foot inside.

Bumble Bee will also pay $1.5 million in restitution to Melena’s family. The district attorney’s Environmental Enforcement Fund will receive $750,000 from Bumble Bee, and the company will pay an additional $750,000 in combined fines, penalties and court costs.

“I hope it sends a message that safety rules are not a recommendation, they are a legal requirement,” Chun said. “I’m hoping people will ... realize shortcutting safety rules to make a few extra bucks and improve the bottom line is not a tolerable equation.”

Bumble Bee must implement enhanced safety measures, such as installing video cameras at their ovens, providing training to managers and workers about safety rules and conducting safety audits of equipment.

The San Diego-based company was charged with three counts of willfully violating safety rules, causing death — a felony. If Bumble Bee complies with the terms of the settlement agreement with the district attorney’s office, the company will plead guilty after 18 months to one misdemeanor count.

An attorney for the company told a judge during Wednesday’s court hearing that the firm had already begun making the necessary improvements to prevent a similar accident. The company’s attorneys declined to comment after the hearing.

“While this resolution will help bring closure with the district attorney’s office, we will never forget the unfathomable loss of our colleague Jose Melena, and we are committed to ensuring that employee safety remains a top priority at all our facilities,” Bumble Bee Foods said in a statement.

In addition to charging the company, prosecutors also filed the same felony charges in April against two of Bumble Bee’s employees.

At the time of Melena’s death, Angel Rodriguez was the director of operations and in charge of every aspect of production, including safety. In interviews with Occupational Safety and Health Administration, Rodriguez said he knew that the employees were occasionally entering the ovens, Chun said.

Saul Florez was charged because of his responsibilities for safety on the plant floor as the company’s safety manager.

Florez said he knew employees sometimes entered the ovens and that he didn’t conduct the required yearly audit and evaluation of policies and equipment to ensure they were updated and conformed with OSHA rules, Chun said.

“We viewed him as the more directly responsible person,” Chun said.

Florez, of Whittier, pleaded guilty on Wednesday. He was sentenced to three years of formal probation, ordered to complete 30 days of community labor and take work-safety classes.

Florez must also pay about $19,000 in fines and penalty assessments. In 18 months, if Florez complies with the terms and conditions of the plea agreement, he may be eligible to have the felony conviction reduced to a misdemeanor, the district attorney’s office said.

With his family sitting quietly nearby, Rodriguez, of Riverside, agreed to do 320 hours of community service, to pay $11,400 in fines and penalty assessments and to take work-safety classes. If Rodriguez complies with the conditions, in 18 months he can plead guilty to a misdemeanor at his sentencing, the district attorney’s office said.

Under the terms of their plea agreements, both men must make public statements admitting guilt for their roles in the victim’s death.

One of Melena’s relatives sat stone-faced and silent in the courtroom Wednesday, while the rest of the family remained outside in the hall. They declined to comment.

In a statement, the Melena family thanked investigators, prosecutors and others for “ensuring that safe work practices are implemented” at Bumble Bee.

“Certainly, nothing will bring back our dad, and our mom will not have her husband back, but much can be done to ensure this terrible accident does not happen again,” the statement said. 

Twitter: @Brittny_mejia and @VeronicaRochaLA

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Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATE

7:30 p.m.: This post was updated with a statment from the Melena family.

1:36 p.m.: This post has been updated throughout, with quotes from an L.A. County prosecutor and other details.

This story was originally posted at 11:59 a.m.

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