WASHINGTON—The U.S. Department of Justice filed criminal charges Aug. 15 against ABC Polymer Industries L.L.C., alleging that the company broke the law in a 2017 incident in which an employee was pulled into an unguarded extrusion line and killed.
The department said in a statement that the Helena, Ala.-based company had a "standard practice" of operating machinery with a guard in the up position, which resulted in an employee reaching into the equipment to clear a jam and getting pulled into spinning rollers.
"Despite knowing of numerous prior worker injuries from using that machine without the safety guard engaged, ABC Polymer assigned the victim to cut tangles out of plastic sheeting from among the machine's unguarded spinning rollers with a hand tool," the DOJ statement said. "The worker became entangled in the spinning rollers and was killed."
A lawyer for the company denied the government's complaint.
"Every employee death in an industrial accident is a tragedy, but it is not always a crime," said Erica Williamson Barnes, a lawyer with Maynard Cooper & Gale L.L.P. in Birmingham, Ala. "ABC Polymer is not guilty of the charges alleged … and looks forward to the opportunity to vigorously defend itself. ABC Polymer has always been, and will continue to be, fully committed to its team members and workplace safety."
But DOJ in its complaint said the company "willfully violated" federal safety regulations for machine guarding.
The charge against the company is a class B misdemeanor, which DOJ said is the only federal criminal charge covering workplace safety violations.
If convicted, ABC Polymer also faces a fine of up to $500,000, or twice the financial gain to the defendant or twice the financial loss to another, whichever is greater, DOJ said. It also could be liable for restitution to the victim, the department said.
It's not the first time ABC Polymer, which makes flexible intermediate bulk containers and bags for industrial customers, has been in court over the incident.
In June, a judge in Jefferson County Circuit Court awarded the family of the worker killed, Catalina Estillado, $3 million, in a wrongful death lawsuit brought by her family.
Judge Elizabeth French wrote in her ruling that "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."
As well, an Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigation resulted in the company paying a $155,000 fine in 2019 over the incident, including $103,000 for one "willful" violation of machinery safety standards and smaller fines for violating lockout and tag-out rules, OSHA records show.
The Department of Justice statement said OSHA standards require machinery like the extrusion line to be guarded while it is operating.
The government's statement alleges that the extrusion line in this case had been manufactured with a metal barrier that would have protected the operator from the pinch points of the rollers, as well as a mechanism that would have stopped the rollers from spinning when the guard is lifted.