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Cintas Gets a 'Pardon' on Safety

By Kevin Osborne · December 23rd, 2008 · Porkopolis

If you’re like most people, when you got in trouble as a kid you knew which parent you preferred to find out first. Inevitably, one was more of a pushover and wouldn’t punish you as severely as the other.

Executives at Cintas Corp. in Mason, it appears, still operate by that philosophy.

After spending almost two years fighting multiple penalties imposed by federal regulators for workplace safety violations — including a $2.78 million fine for an incident involving a worker killed at a Cintas facility in Oklahoma — the company recently had an abrupt turnabout.

As first revealed by The Wall Street Journal, Cintas entered into a deal last week with the U.S. Labor Department to pay $2.76 million in penalties to settle six safety violation cases, including the one involving the death of Eleazar Torres-Gomez near Tulsa, Okla., in March 2007.

Gomez died after he became caught on a large robotic conveyor belt that’s used to transfer uniforms from washers to dryers. He was dragged into the 300-degree dryer and already was dead from burns when another worker found him about 20 minutes later.

Internal company memos later cited at a Congressional hearing revealed that company officials knew about the dangers posed by the conveyor belts and had close calls before but never installed protective guardrails that could have prevented the incident.

Cintas typically pays workers in Gomez’s position about $9 an hour.

The Gomez incident wasn’t unique. Cintas has been cited for more than 170 safety violations in its facilities since 2003, including more than 70 citations that regulators deemed could cause “death or serious physical harm.”

During that period, the company has paid nearly $200,000 in initial penalties, including more than $30,000 in penalties for “repeated” violations of the same standards in multiple company locations.

But potentially facing millions of dollars in additional fines by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), Cintas officials decided it was prudent to cut a deal with the Bush-controlled Labor Department before Dubya leaves office in a few weeks.

And what a deal it is.

Under the settlement, the agreement downgrades the severity of the 43 “willful” violations issued against Cintas since last spring. Willful violations are committed with “intentional disregard” for the law or “plain indifference” to worker safety, according to OSHA guidelines. Now the citations will be dubbed “unclassified.”

Cintas has been fined millions of dollars in recent years by OSHA, and a Congressional subcommittee has urged regulators to conduct a comprehensive review of all Cintas facilities nationwide because of the persistent problems. OSHA, which currently answers to the business-friendly Bush administration, has resisted the subcommittee’s request.

Also, the settlement doesn’t provide any OSHA schedule for oversight and inspections. Cintas workers will decide in early 2009 whether to file formal objections to the settlement.

Cintas officials knew they were about to face much harsher oversight.

At a Senate hearing on workplace safety in April, Sen. Barack Obama submitted a written statement supporting stricter OSHA enforcement. “Industry-backed appointees have weakened OSHA enforcement, eviscerated regulatory standards programs, and ignored emerging workplace hazards,” Obama wrote.

Election Night must have chilled Richard T. Farmer, chairman of the Cintas board.

Longtime CityBeat readers will remember Farmer: He’s the richest man in Greater Cincinnati, with an estimated net worth of $1.5 billion. He and his family have given more than $1.9 million in political contributions during the past decade to Republican candidates and groups, and Farmer was the 15th largest fund-raiser for George W. Bush’s 2000 election.

Yes, Farmer surely thought on Nov. 4, it would be much easier to get a favorable deal with Bush than Obama.

Two prominent Democratic Congress members describe the settlement as a cynical ploy by Cintas to avoid facing potentially harsher penalties in the months to come.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, and Rep. Phil Hare (D-Ill.), a subcommittee member, called the settlement “insufficient.”

Among other reasons, the settlement between Cintas and the Labor Department allows for a two-year delay in installing the guardrails on the type of machines that caused Gomez’s death, the pair said.

“While I am thankful that OSHA has finally reached an agreement to force Cintas to fix hazards that have resulted in repeated safety violations, I am deeply disturbed that the settlement does not specifically hold Cintas responsible and does not go far enough to prevent future accidents,” Woolsey said. “As documented by OSHA, Cintas has a history of repeated safety violations nationwide, and allowing them a full two years to address pre-existing and well-documented hazards is unacceptable.”

Hare’s words were even harsher.

“On its way out the door, the Bush Labor Department has granted serial offender Cintas a despicable pardon for their failure to protect its workers from hazardous machinery,” Hare said.

Cintas reported $531 million in profits for the 2008 fiscal year, which ended in May, although on Dec. 22 the company reported a 13 percent drop in earnings for its fiscal second quarter.

A lawsuit filed against Cintas by an institutional investor alleges it would cost the company about $20,000 to install each guardrail — or less than 10 minutes of company profit.

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