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Company Charged in Worker Death After Repeated Injuries

It was standard practice to bypass installed safety features.

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An Alabama company is facing a $500,000 fine nearly five years after a fatal accident at its facility. On August 16, 2017 at 6:45 pm, a 45-year-old woman was pulled into an unguarded plastics machine at ABC Polymer Industries in Helena. Catalina Estillado, aka Eva Saenz, was pronounced dead at the scene. 

On Monday, the Department of Justice and the Northern District of Alabama's U.S. Attorney's Office announced criminal charges against the company for the willful violations of OSHA standards, which led to the woman's death.

ABC Polymer manufactures flat plastic sheets using plastic extrusion assembly lines that pull the plastic sheeting through multiple clusters of large spinning rollers. The machine at issue, a 1989 FARÈ Godet Roller, was designed with a metal barrier that protects the operator from pinch points. The machine also has an interlock mechanism that stops the rollers from spinning if the guard is lifted. OSHA requires moving machinery to be guarded while it is energized.

At ABC Polymer, it was standard practice to operate the machine with the guard in the "up" or unprotected position when the rollers were moving. The automatic mechanism that would have stopped the line and rollers' spinning when the guard was in the up position was not used, allowing operators to reach between or near the roller drums to cut tangles in the plastic sheet without stopping the line.

Despite several prior worker injuries from using that machine without the safety guard engaged, ABC managers assigned Estillado to cut tangles out of plastic sheeting from among the machine’s unguarded spinning rollers with a hand tool. She became entangled in the spinning rollers and was killed.

OSHA initially issued $195,144 in fines to ABC for 19 violations that stemmed from the investigation. The company paid $155,338 in penalties for 13 violations (six were contested) and OSHA's case was closed in late August 2019. 

Federal law makes it a class B misdemeanor to willfully fail to follow an OSHA safety standard where the failure causes the death of an employee. The class B misdemeanor is the only federal criminal charge covering such workplace safety violations.

If convicted, ABC 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. The company would also be liable for restitution to the victim. 

A federal district court judge will determine any sentence after considering the relevant statutory factors. All defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law.

In September 2017, Estillado's husband, Crescensio Pablo, filed a lawsuit against ABC that alleged his wife was assigned to work in "unreasonably dangerous conditions." In June 2022, he was awarded $3 million in damages after a judge found that two ABC employees removed safety guards that may have prevented the accident.

The two ABC employees include Vice President of Operations Dean Leader and Director of Operations Will Durrall, according to Leader and Durrall told workers to lift the barrier guard and cut breakaway pieces of plastic polymer with a boxcutter. ABC could appeal the $3 million judgment. 

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