Egg City Cited for Safety Hazard Tied to Death

Times Staff Writer

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration has cited a Ventura County egg producer for a safety violation that inspectors said contributed to the March 23 death of a worker.

The citation, made public Monday, also alleges that Julius Goldman's Egg City violated nine other federal safety laws during a seven-day period in March when the agency inspected the 300-acre facility near Moorpark. OSHA fined the company $14,410 for all 10 violations, which ranged from poor housekeeping procedures to failure to secure a protective metal plate over a machine involved in the worker's death and failure to monitor oxygen and combustible gas levels in grain bins.

Egg City officials did not respond to repeated phone calls from The Times on Monday.

The inspection was prompted by a fatal accident involving Rodolfo Gomez, 31, of Fillmore, who bled to death shortly after his right leg was severed above the thigh by a machine called an auger, which mixes chicken feed. Gomez was walking on a runway above the auger when he slipped and displaced a metal plate covering the device, according to a Ventura County sheriff's report on the incident.

The OSHA citation alleges that the metal plate was not securely fastened when Gomez slipped--a condition that the company could have discovered through diligent inspection of its equipment, said Frank Gravitt, director of the agency's north Los Angeles area district.

But, Gravitt said, there is no evidence that the company knew about the condition and ignored it. Therefore, the violation is classified as serious instead of willful and carries a maximum fine of $1,000. OSHA fined Egg City $900 in the violation, Gravitt said.

OSHA's findings confirm a March 23 sheriff's report on the accident. The report said clamps used to hold the protective plate over the auger appeared to have been removed "quite a while ago," judging from the amount of dirt lodged in the holes where the clamps would have been.

Gomez's common-law wife and two children have filed a death claim with the state Workers' Compensation Appeals Board for $97,000, the maximum they can collect under state law, said their attorney, Victor B. Moheno. A civil lawsuit will not be filed against Egg City because state law prohibits dependents of an employee killed on the job from suing the employer except in rare instances, he said.

But, Moheno said, if an investigation he is conducting finds the company knowingly permitted a hazardous condition to exist, he will also file a "serious and willful misconduct" petition for $46,000 with the workers' compensation board.

Grain Storage

Egg City was also cited for willfully violating a federal statute requiring companies that store grain to monitor oxygen and combustible gas levels in their silos to prevent explosions and death by suffocation. The violation was classified as willful because interviews with workers and inspection of company records showed that workers had complained about 10 years ago of respiratory problems resulting from lack of oxygen in the grain bins, Gravitt said. OSHA fined the company $10,000 for the problem, the maximum allowable for a willful violation, he said.

Egg City was also cited for not having guardrails around walkways atop its 30-foot-high grain silos. Other violations include failure to install adequate protective guards on a machine used to grind metal and sharpen tools, and failure to build elevated stairways over machinery. Gravitt said workers in some areas of the plant were forced to clamber over potentially dangerous equipment because of the lack of stairways.

Egg City has until May 26 to contest the citations and request a hearing before the federal Occupational and Safety and Health Review Commission in Sacramento, Gravitt said. The company was also given various deadlines by which to correct the violations. However, most have already been remedied, he said. The agency will conduct a surprise inspection this summer, Gravitt said.

Union Representation

Egg City's 250 workers were represented by the United Farm Workers until 1986, when they walked off the job in a dispute over wages and were replaced. The strike occurred after the ranch, citing severe financial problems, filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code and cut wages by as much as 30%.

The company, listed as the world's largest chicken ranch in the 1986 Guinness Book of World Records, has since been reorganized and has paid its debts, said Arnold L. Kupetz, an attorney for Egg City during bankruptcy proceedings. A Japanese trading firm, Okura Inc., which purchases frozen egg yolks for mayonnaise and egg noodle products from Egg City, lent the company about $14 million in exchange for acquiring a 40% interest, Kupetz said.

Diana Lyons, an attorney for UFW, said the union has long feared that there would be safety problems at the ranch, which produces about 2.2 million eggs daily. She said the company intended to "save every penny regardless of worker safety" and would not let the union inspect the facility, despite repeated requests. The union has asked the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board for the right to represent the workers.

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