Wednesday, April 20, 2005

Worker Dies, Tyson Strikes Out

It's baseball season and the teams have taken the field. Tyson Foods isn't exactly a baseball team, but it does have "team members" (known more commonly as employees) -- about 114,000 of them -- who work at Tysons' 300 facilities and offices in the United States and around the world.

One of Tyson's team members was 35-year-old Luis Donaldo Diaz-Roblero. Diaz-Roblero came over from Guatamala to play on Tyson's Temperanceville, Virginia team. He had limited English skills, but was perfectly able to follow the orders of his coach. Last October 2, the coach told Diaz-Roblero that he needed him to sacrifice for the team. Even though the area was designated "off limits," the coach told his player to take a plastic shovel out scoop out chickenwaste and other debris that floated on top the water in a collection pit. The problem with these pits full of animal wastes is that they rot, eating up the oxygen and producing toxic gases like methane and hydrogen sulfide. They're called "confined spaces" and are strictly regulated by OSHA. No one is supposed to enter a confined space without a permit certifying that the air is breatheable, someone is observing and there is a means to rescue the worker(s) if something goes wrong.

But the coach wasn't going to follow any of those unfair, business killing OSHA regulations. Diaz-Roblero fell 7 feet to his death in the waste pit. It's unclear whether he slipped or passed out form the fumes. The umpire, in this case Virginia OSHA, determined that this was an illegal play, and that the coaching team knew ahead of time that it was an illegal play, called it a "willful" violation and imposed the maximum penalty on the company - $70,000.

Maybe they think they shouldn't have to pay the penalty because Fortune magazine named them "America's Most Admired Company in Food Production," the second time they've won the award for attributes "such as innovation, employee talent, financial soundness, quality of management, use of corporate assets, social responsibility, long-term investment, and quality of products/services." Nothing there about safety, although you can read about Tyson's safety program here.

But hey, accidents happen. Anyone can have an off day every once in a while and accidentally send someone to his death. But as I always tell my kids, when you make a mistake, admit it, apologize and pay the penalty.

Tyson apparently never learned that lesson. They're challenging the citation. $70,000 must be a lot of money for the number 72 company on the Fortune 500 list with $72.4 billion in sales last year. Or maybe they're just afraid admitting to a willful violation will hurt morale on the "team." Or maybe they fear that a willful citation will hurt their chances of winning the award for "America's Most Admired Company in Food Production" a third time.

According to their "core values" Tyson strives to be "honorable people," a "faith-friendly company" and to "to honor God and be respectful of each other, our customers, and other stakeholders."

I'm sure all that will make it easier for Diaz-Roblero to slide into home and enter those pearly gates. His wife and five-month old son should be pleased.

More here.