Leopoldo Gutierrez
Leopoldo Gutierrez was killed in an industrial accident Feb. 28 at Central Valley Meat Co. in Hanford. (Contributed)

In late January, Chris Trombino said he told supervisors at Central Valley Meat Co. that they needed to install lock-out boxes to prevent machines from being accidentally turned on during maintenance.

Tragically, on Monday, 72-year-old Leopoldo Gutierrez died in a meat grinder he was cleaning when another worker at the Hanford plant turned it on. There was no circuit breaker on the machine where Gutierrez could lock the power in the off position - exactly what Trombino had been urging the company to put in place, he said.

"I knew [Gutierrez], and he was a good guy. He was always so happy when I came in," said Trombino, a maintenance mechanic who worked at the plant for three months before he was fired on Feb. 11. "I have nothing personal against the company, it's just that people get hurt. People don't deserve to have to work in environments like that."

Company president Brian Coelho defended Central Valley's safety record in a written statement: "Central Valley Meat Co. has been and continues to be sensitive to safety concerns. Central Valley Meat Co. has used and continues to use its best efforts to ensure the safety of its employees."

Trombino and other ex-employees allege the company did not follow safety procedures in several instances, particularly the inability of each employee to "lock out" dangerous machinery when it was being worked on.

Cal-OSHA is investigating Gutierrez's death and a separate incident in December in which a 43-year-old woman had part of her arm pulled off by a meat auger.

Each employee had locks and tags issued to them, but had no way of locking off the power because there was no circuit breaker box on each machine where the lock could be used, Trombino said.

Trombino said that his safety supervisor, Ronnie Coelho, told employees to "hang the [tags] on the push buttons and hope nobody pushes them."

"For the most part, working there is really unsafe," Trombino said.

There was no procedure in place for how to clean dangerous equipment, said Anthony Sanders, an ex-employee who worked at Central Valley in 2006. Sanders said supervisors would tell employees machinery was turned off, then tell them to work on it without allowing the employees to independently verify that it was turned off.

Sanders complained of electrical problems like shoddy wiring and an electrical control panel room in the basement being flooded with standing water that employees were ordered to wade into.

Trombino also claims a lot of the wiring wasn't up to code.

"That place is dirty, disgusting ," Trombino said. "I'm talking about the mechanical section of it, the wiring for these machines, the wiring behind the cabinets for these machines."

Trombino and Sanders said the company does a better job of ensuring food safety. In 2009, an outside auditing firm gave the plant an "excellent" rating for food-quality issues.

"They always had USDA people on hand, but they never had OSHA people there," Sanders said.

The reporter can be reached at 583-2432.

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