Bumble Bee Foods to Pay $6 Million in Death of Worker Killed in Industrial Oven

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The exterior of Bumble Bee Foods' Santa Fe Springs plant is shown in 2012, when a worker was killed in an industrial oven there. (Credit: KTLA)

Nearly three years after a 62-year-old employee was cooked to death inside a Bumble Bee Foods industrial oven in Santa Fe Springs, the canned tuna-maker agreed to plead guilty to criminal charges and pay $6 million in the case.

The settlement agreement came after a Wednesday morning court hearing and was announced by the Los Angeles County District Attorney’s Office, which said the deal included California’s largest known payout for a workplace safety criminal case involving a single victim.

Two employees who were charged in April alongside the company also agreed to plead guilty and comply with a variety of terms, according to the DA’s office.

The horrific death of Jose Melena of Wilmington occurred Oct. 11, 2012, when he entered a 35-foot cylindrical oven and became inadvertently trapped when coworkers loaded 12,000 pounds of canned tuna into the oven. Workers did not know Melena was inside, according to the DA’s office.

During the two-hour heat sterilization process, the oven’s internal temperature rose to about 270 degrees, the DA’s office had previously said. Melena’s severely burned remains were discovered by a coworker.

His family will get $1.5 million of the $6 million settlement payout.

Under the plea agreement, San Diego-based Bumble Bee will also be required to spend $3 million to replace the outdated tuna ovens with new, automated, pressurized steam cookers that won’t require workers to set inside. Ovens will get video cameras installed, and managers and workers will be required to get safety training.

The company will also pay $750,000 in fees, penalties and court costs.

The DA’s Environmental Enforcement Fund will get $750,000 for the investigation and prosecution of Occupational Safety and Health Administration criminal cases and for improving enforcement related rules.

Bumble Bee has 18 months to comply. After that time, the company will be allowed to plead guilty to misdemeanor willful failure to implement and maintain an effective safety program.

The company must make a public statement admitting guilt, as must two managers who were charged in the case.

Angel Rodriguez of Riverside, the company’s director of plant operations, additionally greed to perform 320 hours of community service, pay approximately $11,400 in fines and penalties, and take classes on safety rules.

Saul Florez of Whittier, Bumble Bee’s former safety manager, pleaded guilty Wednesday to a felony count of willfully violating lockout tagout rules and proximately causing the victim’s death. He was sentenced to three years of probation, along with 30 days of community labor and safety classes. He must pay $19,000 in fines and penalties.

If Florez complies with the plea agreement, his felony conviction may be reduced to a misdemeanor in 18 months.