It was just past 5:30 a.m. when a supervisor approached tuna basket pusher Leonel Andrade and told him to go on break. Andrade hesitated, however, because his fellow fishmonger pal of almost a decade, Jose Melena, was missing.
At first, Andrade thought the 62-year-old Melena—who worked the same Monday through Thursday, 4 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. shift pushing tin cans to be sterilized for Bumble Bee Foods—was in the bathroom or had taken off early.
But he would be dead wrong.
Workers began fanning out to search for the missing basket pusher. Andrade checked the parking lot and saw that Melena’s car had not been moved. An intercom announcement was made, blaring “Jose Melena” to all staffers in the plant. No Melena.
After checking the oven room for his coworker Andrade finished loading the remaining carts of fish before sealing the front door shut and starting the super-heated, pressurized steam cooker. Melena was inside.
Unconscionably, on that predawn October 11, 2012 doomsday, Melena was trapped “and couldn’t get out once the large containers were being pushed in by Andrade,” according to the coroner’s report. Melena apparently was inside the room trying to fix one of the dozen massive, 36-foot-long industrial ovens.
Andrade and the boiler operator let the oven cool down for a half-hour. Then they opened the oven door and found Melena lying lifeless on the concrete, next to his hard hat and disposable mask.
He essentially had been cooked in 270-degree heat for two hours alongside 12,000 pounds of albacore. The coroner documented Melena’s most agonizing death as a “direct thermal injury,” according to the autopsy.
Once Andrade saw his friend inside the heating tube of the oven next to all of the sterilized tin and cooked fish he “immediately fled the scene and was not interviewed by police,” according to the a Whittier Police officer’s report.
And now—after three years—two of Melena’s former tuna teammates from Bumble Bee’s plant in Santa Fe Springs, California, have been charged with violating worker safety rules. If proven guilty, Saul Florez and Angel Rodriguez could land in the big house for up to three years and fined $250,000 apiece.
But questions of culpability in Melena’s death aren’t the only issues surrounding that day. There’s also the matter of the tainted fish that also was cooked in that oven.
A spokesman for the California Department of Public Health confirmed that none of the fish made it onto store shelves. “The tuna was destroyed by the company,” he said.
The company also assured authorities that it didn’t try to repurpose any of the human-tainted batch of tuna, salmon, or sardines. “The product in the incident was not compromised and it was all discarded,” according to the company spokeswoman. However, when quizzed further about how Bumble Bee eradicated the fishy inventory, the company refused to comment. “We’re not sharing any additional information at this time.”
The silence may be because the seafood producer also is named as the first defendant by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s complaint and is facing a $1.5 million fine. The company is fighting the charges, claiming that at the time Cal/OSHA, the state authority that oversees labor safety, found no “willful violations” that led to Melena’s tragic demise.
“We disagree with and are disappointed by the charges filed by the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office,” the company said in a statement, adding that since the “accident” it has made protecting cannery workers a top priority. “Safety has always been and will always be a top priority at our facilities,” according to the statement.
The Daily Beast evaluated the various bits of evidence spelled out in both state and federal OSHA reports, by Whittier police, the Los Angeles County Coroner’s autopsy of Melena, and the criminal complaint—which all blame Bumble Bee and its two staffers as bad actors.
Saul Florez was Bumble Bee’s safety manager. He has since left the company. When asked why, Florez refused to comment, and gave his attorney’s name. Calls to his attorney were not returned.
Meanwhile, Angel Rodriguez, who at the time of Melena’s death was director of plant operations, remains with the fish company. He’s still a Bumble Bee employee. But it’s unclear if he still has the same title or suffered a demotion. Attempts to reach him were unsuccessful.
Each employee was on duty that early morning with Melena who, according to official reports, was trying to fix one of the industrial ovens, known as retorts. According to the report by Cal/OSHA, the agency has fined the San Diego-based Bumble Bee tens of thousands of dollars in penalties for neglecting to train or get proper permits, inspect, or even fix equipment. For years the company endangered employees at its fish cannery plant, the report suggests.
The ovens themselves were faulty, and Melena had no business trying to do maintenance, officials say.
According to multiple reports, Melena was attempting to rig a broken steel chain belonging to one of to the pressure-cooker ovens. The chains running underneath the ovens get yanked open by a worker who would be manning a forklift. That worker pulls out the containers of tins filled with sterilized fish. Once a batch is complete, the ovens are emptied by resetting the chain and switching out the containers with more seafood.
Melena allegedly was attempting to fix one of the chains inside the retort oven. That chain, according to a report by Cal/OSHA, the state’s occupational safety agency, the equipment was broken because of neglect. Bumble Bee didn’t “perform maintenance duties and to make adjustments to a chain inside the Retort Ovens,” the report confirmed.
“This was an unsafe practice which exposed employees to safely hazards for many years,” the Cal/OSHA report says. The company copped to failing to inspect or audit the “the energy control procedures for the production area.”
The Los Angeles District Attorney announced that Bumble Bee and its two workers broke the law. “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,” according to the D.A.
The Bumble Bee matter is just one of cases the state deals with when it comes to workplace safety. In 2013 there were 189 fatalities at California workplaces. According to a Cal/OSHA report from that year, there were 14,984 violations and 6,426 citations issued.
Nationwide, the number of fatalities on the job for that same year is a staggering 4,585.