Bumble Bee Foods and two of the company's employees were charged with violating safety regulations in the death of a worker on April 27.
Jose Melena had been performing maintenance in a 35-foot-long oven at Bumble Bee Foods’ Santa Fe Spring Plant before dawn on Oct. 11, 2012, when a coworker filled the pressure cooker with 12,000 pounds of tuna and turned it on. The coworker had believed Melena, 62, to be in the bathroom.
A supervisor noticed that Melena was missing and made an announcement to search for him in the facility and parking lot, according to the California Division of Occupational Safety Health. Melena’s body was found two hours later after the pressure cooker was turned off and opened. During the two hours Melena had been trapped, the pressure cooker reached a temperature of 270 degrees.
The company, its plant Operations Director Angel Rodriguez and former safety manager Saul Florez were each charged with three counts of violating Occupational Safety & Health Administration rules causing a death, according to The Los Angeles District Attorney Jackie Lacey.
The charges specify that the company, Rodriguez, 63, and Florez, 42, failed to implement a proper safety plan regarding the times when employees work in confined spaces, such as with the pressure cooker, and keeping equipment and machinery off when employees work on them.
Both Rodriguez and Florez could face up to three years in prison and fines up to $250,000 if they are convicted of the felony charges while Bumble Bee Foods could be fined a maximum of $1.5 million.
Bumble Bee Foods says that the company has improved its safety program since the tragedy. The company is also openly opposing the charges and has appealed the penalties.
"We remain devastated by the loss of our colleague Jose Melena in the tragic accident," said the company in a statement. "We disagree with and are disappointed by the charges filed by the Los Angeles district attorney's office."
This isn’t the first time Bumble Bee Foods has gotten into legal trouble over its failure to follow safety regulations. The state's occupational safety agency previously fined the company $74,000 for "failing to properly assess the danger to employees working in large ovens."
Neither Rodriguez nor Florez have responded for comment on the incident.
It is uncommon for district attorneys to prosecute companies for workplace violations, even in the case of fatalities.