Los Angeles County District Attorney Jackie Lacey on April 27 announced that Bumble Bee Foods LLC and two others are facing criminal charges related to willfully violating worker safety rules and causing the 2012 death of an employee who became trapped inside an industrial oven at the company’s Santa Fe Springs plant. 

On Oct. 11, 2012, Jose Melena, 62, of Wilmington, Calif., entered a 35-foot-long cylindrical oven as part of his job duties at Bumble Bee’s Santa Fe Springs plant. The oven is used to sterilize cans of tuna.

Co-workers were unaware that Melena was inside the oven when they loaded multiple carts, collectively containing about 12,000 pounds of tuna, closed the door and started the oven. Melena was trapped in the back of the super-heated, pressurized steam cooker, which reached a temperature of about 270 degrees during the two-hour heat sterilization process.

Melena’s severely burned remains were discovered by a co-worker, prosecutors said. Melena worked for the company for about six years.

On Oct. 19, 2012, Bumble Bee President and CEO Chris Lischewski released a statement that appeared to blame Melena for his own death. In part, the statement said, “At this point, it is still not clear how this could have happened. From a process standpoint, it takes between 20 and 30 minutes to load a retort with about 12 to 14 baskets of canned product to be sterilized. The baskets are loaded by an employee operating a pallet jack. This was Jose’s primary responsibility. Once the baskets are finished processing, they are pulled out of the retort by a forklift. We are not aware of any such accident ever occurring before with this machinery.”

In May 2013, Cal/OSHA issued citations and fines of nearly $74,000 to Bumble Bee Foods, saying the employer had not identified the ovens as a permit-required confined space, and did not post danger signs or similar means to warn workers of the hazards of entering the ovens.

Bumble Bee’s former Safety Manager Saul Florez, the company’s Director of Plant Operations Angel Rodriguez and Bumble Bee Foods LLC were charged April 27 with three felony counts each of an OSHA violation causing death.

“We take worker safety very seriously,” said Lacey. “For the past year, prosecutors and investigators from my office have begun rolling out to major industrial incidents involving serious worker injuries and death. Our goal is to enhance the criminal prosecution of workplace safety violations. Although the Bumble Bee investigation began in 2012, this case represents our commitment to protecting workers from illegal – and, potentially, deadly – on-the-job practices.”

Bumble Bee released this statement to EHS Today:

"We remain devastated by the loss of our colleague Jose Melena in the tragic accident that occurred at our Santa Fe Springs plant in October 2012.  Bumble Bee cooperated fully with Cal-OSHA in its post-accident investigation, which found no willful violations related to the accident.
We disagree with and are disappointed by the charges filed by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office. We are currently exploring all options with respect to those charges and will proceed in the manner that best serves the needs of the Melena family, our employees and the company.
Safety has always been and will always be a top priority at our facilities. Since the 2012 accident, we have made our safety program even more robust, and we remain steadfast in our commitment to ensuring the safest possible workplace for our employees."

The defendants are scheduled to be arraigned on May 27. The case will be prosecuted by Hoon Chun, assistant head deputy of the Consumer Protection Division, and Deputy District Attorney Christopher Curtis of the Environmental Crimes/OSHA Section.

If convicted as charged, Florez of Whittier, Calif., and Rodriguez of Riverside, Calif., face a maximum sentence of three years in state prison and/or a $250,000 fine. San Diego-based Bumble Bee Foods faces a maximum fine of $1.5 million. 

The case remains under investigation by the Cal/OSHA Bureau of Criminal Investigations.