I can remember being at a friend's house when I was young – 8 or 10, maybe – listening to her dad read a short article from the local paper out loud. The reason he was reading the article to us is because my friend's mom was making us sandwiches using Wonder Bread and the article was about a worker who fell into the industrial mixing machine at the factory where Wonder Bread was made. My friend's dad thought he was being funny. In reality, the worker died a horrible, painful death.
For some reason, that article fascinated me. When I got home, I found the article in our newspaper and cut it out. I kept it for years, and to this day, I don't understand my own fascination with it.
Over the past years, I've written about many gruesome workplace fatalities: workers who were crushed by moving conveyors, run over, who fell from great heights, were buried alive in dirt or grain, dragged into the crushing mechanism of garbage trucks, blown up, electrocuted, asphyxiated, burned, drowned, poisoned…
The most recent fatality I wrote about was Jose Melena, a 62-year-old worker at a Bumble Bee Foods tuna processing plant in Santa Fe Springs, Calif. He became trapped in an industrial steam oven used to sterilize canned tuna. His coworkers found him at the end of his overnight shift and called 9-1-1, but it was much too late to help him. The coroner did an autopsy; the body was so disfigured by the heat and steam that dental records had to be used to confirm it was Melena.
Cal-OSHA is investigating and the company is cooperating. Having heard dozens of condolence messages from companies, ranging from the truly heartbroken and heartfelt to the basic CYA message demanded by corporate attorneys and PR departments, I would say that Bumble Bee's message leaned toward the heartfelt: "The entire Bumble Bee Foods family is saddened by the tragic loss of our colleague, and our thoughts and prayers are with the Melena family." That doesn]t mean the company isn't somehow liable.
I don't know the particulars of Melena's job tasks. I was told he pushed large baskets of canned tuna into the steam oven. I would imagine that if the oven was operating correctly, it should not have engaged until Melena was outside. Ideally, you'd think, he would have been the person to turn the oven on once he safely had exited.
Something obviously went terribly wrong. Why was Melena in the oven after it started up? Did he fall and hit his head? Did he suffer a heart attack or stroke that incapacitated him? Perhaps the autopsy results will offer the answers to those questions.
Even so, administrative controls that require a particular procedure for moving product into the oven and allowing personnel time to exit before the oven engaged were not followed or were inadequate to prevent this tragedy. Safeguards failed that should have kept the oven from operating if someone was inside – either the result of a mechanical issue or because they were disabled by a worker, perhaps even Melena himself.
There's rarely one reason why a worker dies on the job. Usually, it’s a combination of failures – human, administrative and engineering – that results in a fatality. Sometimes the failures are what I would call "honest" – someone genuinely forgets to do something, a part gives way at the wrong time, a set of circumstances are put into motion that no one could have foreseen – but other times, it's willful negligence on the part of employees or employers.
Whatever the ultimate cause of a fatality – inadequate training, distraction, equipment failure, inadequate or ignored procedures, coworkers, employers, production schedules – somewhere along the line, for whatever reason, we failed that employee.
And for that, Mr. Melena, from the bottom of my heart, I'm sorry.