TULSA, Okla. — A Cintas Corp. employee working in the wash room was killed in an apparent accident here March 6, prompting several Democratic members of Congress to ask a federal agency to investigate alleged machinery safety hazards at the company’s industrial laundries nationwide.
Eleazar Torres-Gomez, 46, became trapped in an industrial dryer that was in operation. Other workers found his body 20 minutes later.
Some media reports described Torres-Gomez, a Cintas employee since 2000, as having been dragged by a conveyor into the dryer.
Scott Farmer, Cintas president and CEO, told the company’s employee-partners in a letter Tuesday that the investigation indicates Torres-Gomez climbed on top of a moving conveyor and fell into the dryer.
U.S. Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., chairwoman of the House Subcommittee on Workplace Protections, and four other lawmakers asked the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) in a March 9 letter to investigate the accident and potential hazards related to the equipment involved in the worker’s death.
Further, they requested the investigation be conducted “in conformance with OSHA’s procedures for potential criminal prosecutions” because of reports that Cintas had previously been notified of hazards related to the machinery.
Cintas representatives are working closely with OSHA teams and complying with their requests in investigating the incident, according to Cintas spokeswoman Pamela Lowe.
“We are all personally saddened by the death of a fellow Cintas partner,” Farmer wrote, “but even more by the circumstances surrounding our partner’s death.
“Although the investigation is ongoing, it appears our partner did not follow established safety rules which would have prevented this tragic accident. Unfortunately, the partner climbed on top of a moving conveyor to dislodge a jam, contrary to all safety training and procedures, and fell into a dryer.
“We are grief-stricken at the loss of a fellow partner and deeply saddened for his family, and for his fellow partners in the facility. It hurts us all. We must never allow this to happen again.
“We have carefully developed our safety programs, and in the spirit of positive discontent, continue to review and improve these important safety initiatives.”
More signage has been added on the conveyor systems to remind workers of the company’s procedures, Lowe says, and Cintas is continuing to work with OSHA to investigate further steps to prevent such incidents in the future.
Cintas maintains an extensive, nationwide safety training program across all of its operations, Lowe says, demonstrated by a safety record that is 30% better than similar-sized facilities in the industry, according to government data.
Woolsey and the other lawmakers believe Torres-Gomez’s death could have been prevented. They cited an OSHA memo issued July 7, 2005, that alerted “employers, workers and inspectors about the need for special protection from robotic laundry shuttle equipment like that reportedly used in the Tulsa plant.”
In early August 2005, at the request of Cintas employees, OSHA inspectors investigated the company’s Central Islip, N.Y., facility and subsequently cited the company for violations addressed by the bulletin, the lawmakers said.
“We further understand that Cintas challenged OSHA’s decision, and did not agree to fix the violation until the following May, when Cintas agreed to install commercially available guarding technology. It would appear, however, that Cintas failed to address the same deadly hazard in its Tulsa plant.”
When asked about the OSHA memo, Lowe replied, “The technical issues you’re referring to here were not a factor in the incident in Tulsa. Cintas – as many other commercial laundries, hotels, hospitals and other facilities – has been using standard conveyor systems for many years which are purchased from and installed by a variety of commercial suppliers.”
Shut-off safeguards were installed by the manufacturer on the automatic shuttles at the plant where the accident occurred, Lowe says. “While the situation is still under investigation, it does not appear these systems were a factor in the accident.”
Torres-Gomez’s death was the second severe incident in a two-week period for Cintas. A Yakima, Wash., worker’s arm was severely injured in late February when it became tangled in the clothes of a large industrial washer, according to reports.