Late Friday night a Southeast Portland man working as a cleaner at a meat processing plant in Clackamas died after falling into a piece of machinery, according to The Oregonian. The details of this Oregon Industrial Accident case are disturbing and will merit close scrutiny in the months to come.
According to the newspaper, paramedics and the Clackamas County sheriff’s office were called just before midnight on Friday and arrived at the facility to find the victim “entangled in a blender, which regulates the fat content of ground meat. The following day firefighters returned to help dismantle the machinery” and to remove the 41-yesr-old man’s body.
From a legal perspective there are two key elements to this sad story. First, the long and unsettling safety record of the factory in question. The Oregonian reports that this facility “was the target of a consumer alert in 2007, when potentially deadly E. Coli bacteria was traced” to ground beef processed at the plant. More recently – last October, to be precise – the plant was cited by the Oregon Occupational Safety and Health Division after inspectors found “that machinery in the meat-grinding room wasn’t properly locked down during cleaning. (The) inspector said an ‘unexpected start-up of the machine ‘ could cause injuries.” Oregon Occupational Safety and Health regulations are both clear and strict where situations like this are concerned. State regulations require what are known as “Lockout/Tagout” procedures around dangerous machinery to insure worker safety. According to an OSHA document “the standard requires that physical lockout be utilized for equipment or machines which have energy isolating devices capable of being locked out, except when the employer can demonstrate that utilization of a physical tagout system provides full employee protection.” In plain English: the potentially dangerous machine must either be locked-up in a manner that keeps workers from getting to it, or the workers have to be working in teams that allow them to keep track of one another. It will be up to investigators and the courts to decide whether the employer met that standard in this case.
The second important legal detail of this incident concerns the job status of the deceased cleaner. The Southeast Portland man was not employed directly by the meat processing plant or its parent company, the Oregonian notes, but rather by a sanitation service contracted to perform janitorial work at the plant. In legal terms that means any claim related to the death must be treated as an Oregon employment liability law case rather than as an Oregon workman’s compensation issue.
From a Portland industrial accident attorney’s perspective this fact is especially noteworthy. Oregon law requires employers to provide a safe work environment for their employees. This duty extends to contractors as well as to regular employees. Moreover, if the contracting company did not take reasonable precautions to ensure that their employee would be safe at his jobsite they, too, could bear some legal responsibility for this tragedy. The Oregonian reports that the official investigation into Friday’s death could take six months or more. This case is worth watching not only in the months to come as the investigation moves forward but also later if, as seems possible, it moves beyond the investigation stage and becomes a matter for Oregon’s courts.