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Temps: America's Throwaway Workers

A fatal accident at a chemical factory exposes the dangers faced by temporary workers across the country.

| Thu Dec. 20, 2012 7:06 AM EST
Carlos Centeno and his partner, Velia Carbot. Centeno, a temp worker, died after being scalded over 80 percent of his body at a factory outside Chicago.

This story originally appeared on the website of the Center for Public Integrity.

By the time Carlos Centeno arrived at Chicago's Loyola University Hospital Burn Center, more than 98 minutes had elapsed since his head, torso, arms and legs had been scalded by a 185-degree solution of water and citric acid inside a factory on this city's southwestern edge.

The laborer, assigned to the plant that afternoon in November 2011 by a temporary staffing agency, was showered with the solution after it erupted from the open hatch of a 500-gallon chemical tank he was cleaning. Factory bosses, federal investigators would later contend, refused to call an ambulance as he awaited help, shirtless and screaming. He arrived at Loyola only after first being driven to a clinic by a coworker.

At admission Centeno had burns over 80 percent of his body and suffered a pain level of 10 on a scale of 10, medical records show. Clad in a T-shirt, he wore no protective gear other than rubber boots and latex gloves in the factory, which makes household and personal-care products.

Centeno, 50, died three weeks later, on December 8, 2011.

A narrative account of the accident that killed him—and a description of conditions inside the Raani Corp. plant in Bedford Park, Illinois—are included in a US Occupational Safety and Health Administration memorandum obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. The 11-page OSHA memo, dated May 10, 2012, argues that safety breakdowns in the plant warrant criminal prosecution—a rarity in worker death cases.

The story behind Centeno's death underscores the burden faced by some of America's 2.5 million temporary, or contingent, workersa growing but mostly invisible group of laborers who often toil in the least desirable, most dangerous jobs. Such workers are hurt more frequently than permanent employees and their injuries often go unrecorded, new research shows.

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Raani's "lack of concern for employee safety was tangible" and injuries in its factory were "abundant," Thomas Galassi, head of OSHA's Directorate of Enforcement Programs, wrote in the memo to David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.

Raani managers failed to put Centeno under a safety shower after he was burned and did not call 911 even though his skin was peeling and he was clearly in agony, Galassi wrote. "It took a minimum of 38 minutes before [Centeno] arrived at a local occupational health clinic…after having been transported by and in the vehicle of another employee while he shivered in shock and yelled, 'hurry, hurry!' "

A clinic worker called an ambulance, which, according to Chicago Fire Department records, arrived at 2:26 p.m. Centeno was in "moderate to severe distress with 70-80% 1st and mostly 2nd degree burns to head, face, neck, chest, back, buttocks, arms and legs," the records show. Paramedics administered morphine.

Factory bosses, federal investigators would later contend, refused to call an ambulance as Centeno awaited help, shirtless and screaming.

"The EMTs were horrified and angered at the employer, for not calling 911 at the scene and further delaying his care by transferring him to a clinic instead of a hospital," Galassi's memo says.

John Newquist, who retired from OSHA in September after 30 years with the agency, said the case was among the most disturbing he encountered as an assistant regional administrator in Chicago.

"I cannot remember a case where somebody got severely burned and nobody called 911," said Newquist, a former compliance officer who investigated more than 100 fatal accidents during his career. "It's beyond me."

On May 15, OSHA proposed a $473,000 fine against Raani for 14 alleged violations, six of which are classified as willful, indicating "plain indifference" toward employee safety and health. No decision has been made on whether the case will be referred to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution, agency spokesman Jesse Lawder said. OSHA hadn't inspected the Raani factory for 18 years prior to the accident.

Centeno's family has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against Raani and a workers' compensation claim against the temp agency that employed him, Ron's Staffing Services Inc.

"It's just wrong, what happened," Centeno's 26-year-old son, Carlos Jr., said of Raani managers' actions after his father's accident. "They were not thinking of him as a human being."

Raani is appealing the OSHA citations. H. Patrick Morris, a lawyer for the company, did not answer questions about the alleged violations. Morris said, however, that while Centeno was "a good worker and nice person," the company has "good and valid defenses" to the allegations in the family's lawsuit. Raani has yet to file court documents outlining its position.

Jeffrey Kehl, a lawyer for Ron's Staffing, declined to comment.

"I wanted him to quit"

Carlos Centeno came to Chicago from Mexico City in 1994. He was joined six years later by his partner, Velia Carbot, and Carlos Jr. A daughter, Alma, stayed behind.

The family settled in Humboldt Park, a working-class neighborhood on the city's northwest side. A second daughter, Melanie, was born in 2001.

Centeno held jobs as a bartender, newspaper deliveryman and forklift driver at a warehouse. In June 2010, after being laid off by the warehouse, he put in an application at the Ron's Staffing office on West 63rd Street, not far from Midway International Airport. He was sent to the nearby Raani Corp. factory, which makes products ranging from shampoos, styling gels and deodorant sticks to dishwashing liquids and household cleaners. His starting pay was $8.25 an hour.

Raani, founded in 1983 by Rashid A. Chaudary, a Pakistani chemist-turned-entrepreneur, has about 150 employees, roughly 40 percent of whom are contingent workers, according to the May 2012 OSHA memo. Centeno cleaned the tanks in which the factory's products are mixed. His work clothes became so rank, he had his own laundry basket at the family's apartment, partner Carbot said; about six months before the fatal accident, chemicals splashed in his right eye and he couldn't see out of it for three days, she said.

"I wanted him to quit," Carbot, speaking in Spanish, said. "But, at the same time, we knew he hadn't found another job yet, and expenses continued, unfortunately, and he had to work."

"If some of the jobs in your facility are undesirable and dangerous, you outsource them to people who won't complain."

The OSHA memo describes a factory in which workers were often hurt and injuries were not properly recorded. An OSHA inspection on December 9, 2011, the day after Centeno died, revealed, for example, that workers "were handling chemicals including, but not limited to, corrosives and acids while wearing only medical grade latex gloves," the memo says.

Workers were seen putting their hands directly into streams of chemicals poured from drums, OSHA enforcement director Galassi wrote. "Another significant hazard [to] which employees are exposed, as evidenced by the fatality, was the high temperature (nearly boiling) water and cleaning solutions used for cleaning tanks, process lines and floors. Employees interacted with high temperature liquids wearing only latex gloves and tee-shirts."

A manager explained that thick, black gloves were kept in the maintenance department "because they were expensive and the employees stole them," Galassi wrote. The manager said, however, that "any employee could obtain the black gloves if so desired."

A review of Raani's medical files turned up five injuries, apart from Centeno's, that had occurred since 2010 but had not been entered in OSHA logs, as required by federal law, Galassi wrote. Injuries "involving chemical exposure to eyes, high temperature liquid burns and cuts had been a common occurrence for years," his memo says. One worker who had been burned and whose skin was peeling was told by a manager "to leave it alone, it wasn't dangerous."

Another was burned so badly he needed skin grafts, but the incident wasn't recorded even though CEO Chaudary "stated he was aware of the injury," Galassi wrote. On January 27, 2012, more than two months after Centeno was scalded, a worker performing a similar tank-cleaning procedure received severe burns to his left leg. He was handed a written notice from management. "You are hereby warned to be careful in the future," it said, in part.

"Instead of issuing the appropriate [protective gear] to its workers and ensuring its usage, Raani Corporation has chosen to blame their employees outright for their injuries and non-compliance," Galassi wrote.

Two managers "admitted to witnessing [Centeno] with his shirt off and speaking with him" shortly after he was burned, the memo says. "Both managers agreed the injured employee's skin was burned, damaged, wrinkled and parts were 'peeling.' "

The managers not only failed to call 911—they made Centeno wait while one filled out paperwork before allowing him to be taken to a local clinic, Galassi wrote. The coworker who drove Centeno about four miles to the MacNeal Clearing Clinic said "he was asked to lie on his written statement and write that Carlos Centeno was acting fine, conscious and talking on the drive to the clinic. Even after the incident, company officials have not concluded that 911 should have been called immediately."

Chaudary, who was not on the scene the day of the accident—November 17, 2011—told an OSHA inspector that the "wrong valve opened" on the tank Centeno was cleaning, according to the memo, but insisted that "if Carlos Centeno had lived, the decision to not call an ambulance would have been the right call."

Centeno's coworkers, however, "provided signed statements of the severity of the injury and the extreme delayed response in seeking medical care," Galassi wrote.

Chaudary did not respond to requests for comment.

Not long after he was doused with the hot water-citric acid mixture, Centeno called Velia Carbot, asking for Carlos Jr. He sounded agitated and had trouble speaking, Carbot said, but would not explain what had happened.

Carbot went across the street and got Carlos Jr., who called his father's cell phone. It was answered by a coworker, Samuel Meza, who said Carlos Sr. had been burned at work. "He was like, 'I'm taking him to the clinic,' " Carlos Jr. said.

Meza called Carlos Jr. after he arrived at the MacNeal Clearing Clinic. While they talked, Carlos Jr. said, "I could hear that the nurse in the clinic was telling him, 'Why are you bringing him here?…He needs to go to the emergency room.' "

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