In a stark turnabout from the company’s previous position involving the incident, Cintas Corp. has settled a lawsuit filed by the wife of an employee who was burned to death in an industrial dryer at an Oklahoma facility.
When Eleazar Torres-Gomez was killed at the Cintas laundry near Tulsa, Okla., in March 2007, the company took no responsibility and blamed him for his death. Further, Cintas initially tried to block Torres-Gomez’s family from claiming workers compensation benefits.
Now, just four days before the suit would reach trial, the Mason-based uniform supplier settled the case with Torres-Gomez's widow on Thursday. Details of the settlement weren’t disclosed.
Court-ordered mediation in the case previously was unsuccessful.
In her lawsuit, Amalia Diaz Torres alleged Cintas knowingly encouraged dangerous working practices by employees in order to meet production quotas. Cintas denied the allegations, but has faced multiple fines for the past few years due to workforce safety violations at its facilities.
While working his shift one morning, Gomez was alone in an area where clothes are washed by an automated system. He became caught on a large, robotic conveyor belt that is used to transfer uniforms from washers to dryers.
Despite struggling to get free, he remained trapped and was dragged inside the dryer, where temperatures reach 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Gomez was found about 20 minutes later by another worker, but already was dead. He was 46 years old.
Cintas usually pays workers in Gomez's position about $9 per hour, or about $18,720 annually before taxes.
Shortly after the incident, Cintas CEO Scott Farmer sent a letter to all employees, stating Gomez had caused his own death by failing to follow standard safety procedures.
"Unfortunately, (Gomez) climbed on top of a moving conveyor to dislodge a jam, contrary to all safety training and procedures, and fell into a dryer," Farmer wrote. "I'm 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."
Internal company memos 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.
The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) fined Cintas $2.78 million for the Gomez incident, but the company fought the penalty. In the final days of the Bush Administration, Cintas reached a settlement with the Justice Department to pay $2.76 million in penalties to settle six safety violation cases, including the one involving Gomez's death.
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.