O.C. Garment Manufacturer Is Hit With 17 Safety Charges : Labor: Clothes Connection in Santa Ana is appealing the citations. INS is also investigating the company.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

While unloading boxes last year at Clothes Connection, a 33-year-old man named Jose had his big toe crushed by a forklift. The company, a garment manufacturer, sent the injured worker for treatment at a nearby clinic, where a physician dressed the wound.

The toe developed gangrene, however, and a month later it was amputated. Yet when Cal/OSHA paid a surprise visit to Clothes Connection in late December, safety inspectors learned that the company never reported the incident.

Although California law requires immediate notification of fatalities or serious injuries, Jose's never was investigated. His was one of 135 accidents last year at Clothes Connection that required medical attention, which health and safety officials say is a large number for a company of its size.

The company, which employs about 1,300, had no record of more than half of those incidents, the agency found after analyzing independent medical reports that it obtained. Failing to report and log injuries was among 17 violations that the state's occupational safety and health administration has alleged against Clothes Connection, fining the company about $13,000.

Company President Sharon Stephen, who owns Clothes Connection, has refused to comment on the citations, which the company is appealing. Rick Stephen, her father and owner of California Connection, a sister company in Los Angeles, said he was unaware of the Cal/OSHA inspection.

But Cal/OSHA's thick file on the company and interviews with workers and union representatives trying to organize at Clothes Connection paint a grim picture of a factory where hundreds of immigrant workers are toiling for minimum wage under harsh supervision and unhealthy, unsafe conditions.

Labor law violations in the garment industry are hardly new. In the past two years, federal and state labor officials have assessed more than $8 million in fines against hundreds of garment companies in the state, most of them in Southern California, for abusing minimum-wage, overtime, child-labor and other regulations, including violations of health and safety laws.

But few of those companies have been as large as Clothes Connection. And few have received as many serious citations from Cal/OSHA. In 1994, Cal/OSHA inspected 182 garment makers in the state. The average fine per company was $1,145.

Clothes Connection, whose workers are mostly Mexican and Vietnamese immigrants, is also being investigated by the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the agency confirmed. Earlier this month the company fired about 300 workers--including the man whose toe was amputated--according to people familiar with the company. Those sources said the firings were triggered by the INS investigation and the employees' inability to produce work papers.

Clothes Connection manufactures women's clothes that are sold to discount retailers, including Kmart and Wal-mart. It started out in 1989 at a facility on Wilshire Avenue in Santa Ana and in December, 1993, consolidated several smaller operations into a two-story building on Dyer Road.

The company operates in Santa Ana's popular enterprise zone, where companies get sales tax credits for certain purchases, such as equipment, that can offset their state income taxes. State officials said information on how much Clothes Connection has benefited from the enterprise zone, if at all, is private.

Cal/OSHA officials first visited Clothes Connection on Dec. 28 after receiving a complaint from a worker. Inspectors made three subsequent visits in January, walking through the factory, interviewing workers and taking photographs. Inspectors said the company had no health and safety specialist on site, not even a nurse's station, which is not required under Cal/OSHA regulations but is customary at large industrial companies.

Cal/OSHA officials reported that Clothes Connection managers said they did not have Log 200s, the state forms on which companies are required to record injuries, for 1990, 1991 or 1992.

The logs for 1993 and 1994 were incomplete. The company's Log 200 for last year showed 58 injuries, many of them cases of back strain, lacerations and punctures to the fingers. But the entries in the log were not chronological and only covered injuries that occurred from February to June.

The personnel manager at Clothes Connection said that, because of improved safety programs, there was just one injury in the second half of last year, according to Cal/OSHA inspectors. The inspectors said they also contacted Clothes Connection's workers' compensation insurer, Pacific Rim in Woodland Hills, which verified that the garment firm had not filed any injury claims in the second half of 1994.

But reports that Cal/OSHA obtained from nearby East Edinger Medical Clinic, where injured worker Jose was sent and where Clothes Connection has an account, show that 75 employees received treatment--some more than once--from July to December last year. The most serious appeared to be the amputation, although eye lesions, sprained ankles, rashes and allergic reactions were also treated by East Edinger doctors.

Many of the injuries at Clothes Connection were punctures to workers' fingers caused by tagging guns. Like a stapler, the hand-held device is used to attach a plastic tag commonly found on garments. But the gun's needle can shoot through the fabric and puncture the hand holding the fabric.

The puncture itself is painful and requires medical treatment. But if tagging guns are shared by workers--as they are at Clothes Connection, safety inspectors say--disease-causing bacteria or viruses can be transmitted by the gun's needle, just as if people were sharing a syringe. Because of that danger, state safety officials are pushing to develop tougher standards for tagging guns' use.

Safety inspectors cited Clothes Connection for allegedly failing to train workers on the use of a tagging gun, not establishing a written plan on its safe use and failing to provide hepatitis B vaccinations to employees who were using tagging equipment.

"The transmission of blood-borne pathogens is a serious matter," said Rick Rice, a spokesman for the state's Department of Industrial Relations, which oversees Cal/OSHA. Rice said Cal/OSHA has issued alerts about the proper use of tagging guns. "I think the industry has taken notice, but occasionally we find this type of problem."

Cal/OSHA also fined Clothes Connection for two other serious violations: allegedly failing to guard openings in electrical boxes properly and for not providing wash facilities for flushing eyes and body.

Among other hazards reported by workers but not resulting in fines, inspectors said, were poor ventilation and emergency exits blocked by racks of clothing and forklifts.

Most of the workers earn minimum wage or just slightly more, with no medical insurance coverage or other benefits, according to employees and union representatives.

Just how many of those workers are illegal immigrants is not known. Officials at the Immigration and Naturalization Service would not comment on the case. People familiar with the company, however, said that immigration inspectors first visited Clothes Connection in mid-1994 and that, in a more recent visit, the company was supplied a list of workers whose resident or work status could not be verified.

Clothes Connection faces penalties of as much as $1,000 per worker if INS inspectors can prove that the employer knowingly hired or employed unauthorized workers.

Allegations of labor abuses by the company have spurred the United Food and Commercial Workers union to launch an organizing effort. Last week the union filed charges with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing Clothes Connection managers of threatening workers. The company has not yet responded to the union's charges, a labor board spokesman said.

Chuyen Nguyen and Ho Lai, union representatives who are trying to organize Clothes Connection, say they have signatures of support from many workers at the plant, though they would not say what percentage.

Nguyen said it will be difficult to unionize the factory because of the nature of its jobs, which are low-paying and offer little security. "The turnover rate is so great," Nguyen said, "it's difficult to get people together to do anything."

Amputee Jose, who asked that his last name not be used, expresses bitterness toward his former employer. He blames the company for his injury, which he says occurred because the driver of the forklift was not properly trained.

In an interview, he said he still has difficulty walking. "I feel betrayed," he said.

Times correspondent Hope Hamashige contributed to this report.

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