Two prominent Democratic congress members say a $3 million settlement between Cintas Corp. and federal workplace safety regulators is insufficient because it downgrades the severity of the company’s violations and gives it two years to install new safety equipment.
The legislators describe the sudden settlement essentially as a “pardon” granted by the Bush Administration in its final days, and a cynical ploy by Mason-based Cintas to avoid facing potentially much harsher penalties under the incoming Obama Administration.
Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Workforce Protections, and Congressman Phil Hare (D-Ill.), a subcommittee member, sharply criticized the settlement.
As first revealed by The Wall Street Journal, Cintas entered into a deal with the U.S. Labor Department to pay $3 million in penalties to settle six safety violation cases, including one that resulted in the death of a worker in an industrial dryer last year in Oklahoma.
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 guidelines set by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Now, the citations will be dubbed “unclassified.”
Among the cases settled are the March 2007 death of Eleazar Torres-Gomez at a laundry facility near Tulsa, Okla. Gomez died after he became caught on a large, robotic conveyor belt that is 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.
Cintas has been fined millions of dollars in recent years by the OSHA, and Woolsey’s 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, Republican administration of George W. Bush, has resisted the subcommittee’s request.
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.
This week’s 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.
Also, the settlement doesn’t provide any OSHA schedule for oversight and inspections. Cintas workers will decide whether to file formal objections to the settlement in early 2009.
“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.
“The death of Eleazar Torres-Gomez last year was tragic and preventable. In the Tulsa plant where he worked, Cintas failed to install the guarding necessary to prevent him from being dragged into a 300 degree dryer,” he added. “Workers have complained of the same hazards across the country. Yet this settlement gives Cintas an unacceptably long window to make the necessary improvements, with many plants having up to two years.
“How many lives will be lost before this company is required to gets its act together?”
Cintas reported $531 million in profits for the 2008 fiscal year, which ended in May, although the company today 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.