An Alabama judge has awarded $3 million to the family of an employee killed in an accident at extrusion firm ABC Polymer Industries, LLC, saying that the worker was put in an "unreasonably dangerous situation" because of the company's safety practices.
In a June 14 decision cataloguing safety breakdowns, Jefferson County Circuit Court Judge Elisabeth French ruled that company officials are liable in the August 2017 death of Catalina Estillado.
She was pulled into an extrusion line at production speed and crushed while trying to clear materials.
In a 10-page ruling, French said that company executives did not properly install a limiting switch on the line to slow its speed if employees were trying to clear materials and did not properly train employees.
"The evidence clearly establishes that [executives] removed a safety guard or device by either failing to install the interlocking limit switch and/or bypassing a safety device by training employees to cut wraps by lifting the barrier guard while the rollers were in operation," French wrote.
An attorney for Estillado's widower, Crescencio Pablo, said it was a preventable death.
"This was a tragedy for the family," said William Traylor, an attorney with the Birmingham, Ala., firm of Yearout & Traylor P.C. "The machine was designed and manufactured with a guard that would have prevented Catalina's death.
"The guard was never installed and Catalina was performing her job as she was trained to do, and cutting a wrap at production speed when the incident occurred," he said.
ABC Polymer, its CEO Randy Reed and attorneys for two executives named in the suit, Dean Leader and William Durall, did not respond to a request for comment. Leader had been vice president of operations and Durall had been director of operations.
The incident happened at ABC's headquarters facility in Helena, Ala. The company makes bulk bags, or flexible intermediate bulk containers, for industrial customers.
In the ruling, French said evidence presented at the March 14 bench trial indicated that employees were verbally instructed to raise machine guards to clear problems with plastic materials on the extruder, even though it had a written policy saying machine guards should be left in place for safety and only removed for maintenance.
"Despite a written policy in place instructing employees to keep the guards down while in operation, employees were trained and instructed to raise the guards, including those on [on the line Estillado worked on] and cut wraps while the line was in operation," French wrote.
She cited testimony that Leader gave to OSHA and presented to the court by Pablo's lawyer.
"Here we've been running with the guards in the up position most of the time," French quoted Leader as telling OSHA. "I say it's just a really bad habit not keeping the guards in place. Even if they needed to cut a wrap they could raise it, cut it & then put it back in place."
Estillado, who was reportedly 45 years old at the time, had started working as a line operator at ABC in mid-April of 2017, about four months before her death.
The judge said Estillado's training included dealing with wraps, or breakaway pieces of plastic that would get tied up in the rolls and cause problems for the extrusion process.
"Employees were trained to bypass the barrier guard to access the rollers," French wrote. "They were instructed to raise the barrier guard with the rollers in operation and exposed their hands and arms to rollers while they attempted to cut the wraps with a box cutter — all while the rollers were operating at production speed."
French said that both Leader and Durall "testified that this manner of cutting wraps was dangerous and that neither of them has personally attempted to comply."
The judge said evidence showed that Estillado reached into the machine when the barrier guard was up, to try to clear a wrap, and was pulled into the rollers.
"As a result of being caught in the roller, Ms. Estillado was tragically killed," the judge wrote. "The cause of death was a blunt force cranial injury caused when she was pulled into the rollers."
French said the factory floor had safety signs warning employees to keep the machine guards down while it was operating and that both Leader and Durall regularly saw "employees accessing the rollers while the guard was up and rollers at production speed."
Attorneys for Leader and Durall previously told the court that their clients trained employees on safety measures, including to find a coworker to stop a machine if broken plastic strands needed to be removed.
They said at the time that no employees had suffered catastrophic injuries before or since Estillado's death and they suggested they had not received proper information about the extrusion line when it bought second-hand.
The history of the particular extrusion line, originally made by the Italian firm Faré SpA in 1989, also figured in the trial.
The court's ruling said it was in dispute whether the machine had an interlocking switch as a safety device when ABC bought it used, but Faré testified that it had installed that switch and all proper safety devices when it was newly manufactured.
French noted an Alabama Supreme Court ruling which held that companies are responsible for installing safety devices like an interlocking switch if they were on the machine originally.
"That switch was provided with the machine when sold. As such, the [defendants] were required to install it," French wrote. "The failure to install the manufacturer-provided interlocking limit switch was the functional equivalent of removal."
French's ruling said the extrusion line was first installed in ABC's factory in Mexico, and in 2006 was moved to the Helena facility, where Dean and Leader supervised the installation.
Traylor said Faré was removed from the case because it was able to show that the machine originally shipped with required safety equipment, and ABC was removed because of immunity granted to companies under workers' compensation laws.
ABC's workers' compensation carrier had already settled with the family, he said.
Traylor said his firm has not yet done discovery on the assets for the two remaining original defendants, Leader and Durall.
Estillado's death also was investigated early on by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
In 2018, OSHA originally proposed fines of $195,000 against ABC before it and the company settled the case with a $155,000 penalty, including $103,000 for a "willful" violation of machinery safety standards. It included smaller fines for violating lockout and tag-out rules.
"This company's failure to install machine guarding equipment has resulted in a preventable tragedy," OSHA said at the time.
Do you have an opinion about this story? Do you have some thoughts you'd like to share with our readers? Plastics News would love to hear from you. Email your letter to Editor at [email protected]
Please enter a valid email address.
Please enter your email address.
Please select at least one newsletter to subscribe.
Staying current is easy with Plastics News delivered straight to your inbox, free of charge.
Plastics News covers the business of the global plastics industry. We report news, gather data and deliver timely information that provides our readers with a competitive advantage.
1155 Gratiot Avenue Detroit MI 48207-2997