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Uniform supplier accused of safety violations
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    TULSA, Okla. — In March 2007, Eleazar Torres-Gomez fell into a 300-degree industrial dryer at a Cintas Corp. laundry and died.
    Instead of shutting off the machinery as he was supposed to do, the seven-year employee had climbed onto a slow-moving conveyor to clear a jam of wet laundry. He jumped up and down on the clump and fell in.
    Twenty minutes later, another employee heard Torres-Gomez’s burned body banging around in the dryer and made the grisly discovery.
    Afterward, Cintas — North America’s largest uniform supplier, whose vans can be seen in many major cities — was slapped with a $2.78 million fine by the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration for unsafe practices and inadequate worker training. The company also announced it was posting safety monitors at every laundry where automatic equipment was used.
    But an Associated Press review of records found that in the year and a half after the tragedy in Tulsa, at least eight Cintas plants in six states have been cited by OSHA and state authorities for hazards similar to those that led to Torres-Gomez’s death.
    And in interviews with the AP, some current or former employees said that the workers who serve as safety monitors are sometimes pulled from their jobs and assigned to other duties, and that employees still risk life and limb to clear laundry tangles.
    Cincinnati-based Cintas employs 34,000 people and posted sales of nearly $4 billion in fiscal 2008. It supplies and launders uniforms for restaurant and hotel employees and other workers.
    Cintas spokeswoman Heather Trainer disputed the employee allegations and said the company has made several safety improvements, including reinforcing training every week and installing devices around the conveyors that sense when someone has gotten too close and shut the system down.
    Some labor experts said that Cintas needs to go further and charged that the company has long regarded fines as the cost of doing business.
    ‘‘These fines are parking tickets, and these companies can afford to pay parking tickets,’’ said Kate Bronfenbrenner, an expert at Cornell University on labor-management issues.
    At the company’s Vista, Calif., plant, an inspection earlier this year found employees were subject to ‘‘hazardous exposure to operating equipment in the wash as a part of their normal work duties ... and to hazardous exposure arising out of unauthorized access to the wash alley,’’ or the area where the washers and dryers are situated.
    In March, the Corpus Christi, Texas, laundry was cited for not providing safety guards around the equipment to protect employees ‘‘from the hazards of being struck by the automated shuttle/conveyor.’’
    Trainer said the equipment in question is made by a variety of manufacturers and used by other industrial launderers. She said Cintas is working closely with those manufacturers to develop further safety features.
    Shortly before Torres-Gomez died, a worker’s arm was shattered in an accident involving an industrial washer at Cintas’ Yakima, Wash., laundry.
    OSHA’s probe of the Tulsa accident also turned up a surveillance tape showing workers engaged in unsafe practices in the weeks before the tragedy, according to a shareholder lawsuit filed in July. The lawsuit cites an OSHA memo that said employees in Tulsa ‘‘climbed on and walked up the moving shuttle conveyor, and kicked at, jumped on and tried to knee the jammed clothing into the dryer opening.’’
    One former Cintas employee said that that even after the Tulsa death, it was still routine for workers and supervisors — acting on their own in violation of company policy — to climb onto the conveyors to unclog jams of towels and floor mats.
    ‘‘They would get on top of it and push, push, push, push with their feet,’’ said Phyllis Aleong, a former worker in Mobile, Ala. ‘‘I’ve seen the wash alley operators on both shifts almost get taken into the dryers. I’ve seen guys almost get their foot caught. One guy lost his shoe in there.’’
    She added: ‘‘The only time they clean up or try to implement safety is when they know one of their big regional vice presidents is coming or they’re getting ready to have a major inspection.’’
    Aleong said she was fired last March because she tried to organize a union; Cintas said she resigned after she couldn’t provide paperwork backing a Family and Medical Leave Act claim.
    As for Cintas’ policy of posting safety monitors, ‘‘they have been failing to do that because of stuff like people going on vacations, or they need more personnel to work on production, so they got me doing something else,’’ said Ernesto Esqueda, who has worked in the Bedford Park, Ill., plant for about three years and was supposed to be a monitor. ‘‘They don’t want to hire somebody else.’’
    Trainer said a safety monitor is present any time an employee enters an automated wash alley. She added that every plant has an open-door policy encouraging employees to report concerns to supervisors.
    Sharon Worthy, a spokeswoman for the Labor Department, which oversees OSHA, said she could not comment because OSHA and Cintas are in settlement talks over the fine imposed in the Tulsa accident.
    Trainer said Cintas has been subjected to increased inspections in part because of a campaign by the UNITE HERE union to organize Cintas workers.
    Eric Frumin, health and safety director for UNITE HERE, said proper barriers could be installed for what would amount to ‘‘pocket change’’ for a company like Cintas.
    ‘‘Imagine if plant managers took the same approach to sending their receipts, their profits, to headquarters as they did to implementing safety requirements,’’ Frumin said. ‘‘How long would the corporate office continue to let those managers continue to work?’’

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