• 57°

Ajin USA sentenced, ordered to pay $1.5 million in accidental death suit

Ajin USA was sentenced in federal court, on Monday in Montgomery, after pleading guilty to a charge related to the death of a machinery operator, according to a press release from the Department of Justice.

Regina Elsea, who was 20 years old, died in 2016 from a machine error at Ajin’s Cusseta facility.

According to the press release, on June 18, 2016, Elsea entered a “cell,” which contains several robots and other pieces of machinery, in order to troubleshoot a sensor error. While she was inside the cell, one of the machines started up and Elsea was struck by a robotic arm.

She was rushed to East Alabama Medical Center but later died of her injuries at UAB.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires employers to develop and utilize procedures to de-energize machinery during maintenance and servicing activities to prevent the kind of unplanned startup that killed Elsea. These procedures, which are often called lockout/tagout, had been developed. Over a period of at least two years, supervisors did not effectively enforce them at AJIN, according to the press release.

In the 15 minutes prior to Elsea’s fatal injury — in the presence of their supervisors — workers entered cells to troubleshoot machinery without following said procedures no less than five times. The supervisors did not take any action to stop or reprimand them, according to the press release.

In two other instances, the supervisors themselves entered a cell without following lockout/tagout. At the time of Elsea’s fatal injury, several individuals were inside the cell, none of whom had followed lockout/tagout procedures to de-energize the machinery within the cell.

“Regina’s tragic death was preventable,” Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan D. Brightbill of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division said in the deposition. “OSH Act standards exist to protect American workers, but employers must actually implement them. When safety policies exist only on paper, tragedies like this occur. Ajin knew its supervisors and managers were turning a blind eye to the company’s safety procedures. Now, Ajin must take responsibility for its conduct.It will implement the safety compliance plan, and work to make its facility safer for its employees. Employers should be aware that they must follow workplace safety laws.”

In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor issued 51 violations, two serious and 48 willful, and fined Ajin more than $2.5 million.

“We at Ajin remain deeply saddened over the tragic accident that took the life of one of our valued teammates,” Ajin said in a statement in 2016. “Our deepest sympathy and prayers are with her family and loved ones during this most difficult time. Team members are members of our own Ajin family and team safety has always been our guiding principle.”

On Monday, Ajin pleaded guilty to a willful violation of the OSH Act standard requiring the use of lockout/tagout procedures. U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Michael Doyle sentenced Ajin to pay a $500,000 fine — the statutory maximum — $1,000,000 in restitution to Elsea’s estate, and a three-year term of probation, during which Ajin must comply with a safety compliance plan, overseen by a third-party auditor.

“Employers are responsible for worker safety and health, and the failure in this situation was tragic,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Loren Sweatt. “Well-known safety procedures were repeatedly ignored that could have prevented this tragedy. While nothing can ever replace the loss of life, the court has sent a clear message that such disregard for worker safety is unacceptable.”

Among other things, the safety compliance plan requires a full review of Ajin’s lockout/tagout procedures, weekly inspections to ensure compliance, and creation of a mechanism for employees to report any safety concerns about the facility anonymously.

“Every worker expects to return home safely at the end of his or her shift,” said U.S. Attorney Louis V. Franklin Sr. of the Middle District of Alabama.“The OSH Act was passed to ensure that workers could trust that their employers create and maintain a safe work environment. While most companies abide by the OSH Act, the unfortunate reality is that some of them do not. Ajin failed to comply with the OSH Act and, as a direct result of their failure, Regina Elsea did not return home safely at the end of her shift.

Her death was preventable and Ajin’s failure to keep her out of harm’s way is inexcusable. I hope this prosecution sends a message to companies that people are their most valuable resource and complying with the OSH Act is a must in protecting its employees.”