Workers assemble red rice & veggie frozen meals at Amy's Kitchen's plant in Santa Rosa on May 16, 2022. (Farida Jhabvala Romero/KQED)
California regulators slapped fines of $25,000 on the Petaluma-based organic meal producer Amy’s Kitchen due to more than a dozen health and safety violations inspectors found at its large production plant in Santa Rosa. The investigation was sparked by a worker complaint in January.
Three of the 13 citations were “serious” due to the risk of severe injury or death to workers, according to a report issued by Cal/OSHA inspectors after they visited the facilities where roughly 680 people work.
The violations include substandard emergency eyewash stations for employees who may be exposed to corrosive chemicals in the boiler room, and unsecured guards in dough-flattening conveyors.
Such exposed machinery could hurt workers by pulling their hands or clothing into it, according to safety experts. Federal regulators estimate that more than 800 workers die every year and 18,000 more are severely injured, including from amputations, by using unguarded machinery.
Amy’s Kitchen, the vegetarian meal company that has cultivated a socially responsible image, plans to contest all of the citations issued by the agency on July 26.
“I’m very proud of the safety of our plant, and of course I am disappointed that we got what I would consider technical violations of the code,” said Steve Myers, senior manager of risk and safety for Amy’s Kitchen, adding that none of the citations were the result of worker injuries.
Myers disputed the finding that dough-flattening equipment was not sufficiently guarded. He said that only maintenance workers access that part of the machine, which is a few feet off the ground, and that they ensure it’s off while they work on it. Amy’s has since installed additional eyewash stations.
“We took their findings to heart,” said Myers, who oversees safety programs at Amy’s three production facilities in Oregon, Idaho and California. “We are always trying to continually improve safety, even though we have a very good safety record.”
But Garrett Brown, a retired Cal/OSHA field inspector who reviewed the agency’s findings at KQED’s request, said the citations showed that Amy’s Kitchen’s facilities were “definitely not a safe workplace” when inspectors arrived, including on Jan. 26 and 31.
“The fact that there were no reported worker injuries from these safety hazards at the time of the inspection indicates the employer was lucky, not safe,” said Brown, a compliance safety and health officer for 18 years. “These are real safety hazards which can have real adverse consequences on people’s health and safety.”
Amy’s Kitchen has been fined in the recent past for violations that resulted in workers getting hurt at the Santa Rosa plant, including an incident during which an employee’s finger was amputated on a food packaging line. Initial penalties by Cal/OSHA totaled more than $120,000 between 2014 and 2019.
The agency’s most recent inspection, for which the company says it turned over hundreds of pages of records, comes after a handful of workers filed a complaint in January, alleging they and others suffered serious repetitive motion injuries over years of assembling burritos and other meals.
The employees charged that Amy’s production line speeds often moved too fast, and that management failed to prioritize their safety over productivity, with supervisors sending workers who complained of pain back to the line.
One employee who participated in the complaint, Cecilia Ojeda, previously told KQED that working at Amy’s hurt her wrist so badly it required surgery. The injuries prevented her from picking up her children when they were toddlers or cleaning her house the way she wanted. She said she continues to take pain medication almost daily to make it through her workday.
Cal/OSHA inspectors, who found violations at Amy’s facilities over three separate visits, did not mention any violations of current ergonomic regulations or cite problems with the pace of production lines at the facility in Santa Rosa.
California has no safety regulations on the speed of production lines or the pace of work, which hampered the agency’s ability to cite any violations on that issue, Brown said. And while the state has an ergonomics regulation dating back to 1997, the standard is so difficult to prove and convoluted it is practically unenforceable, he added.
“So the fact that that was not cited doesn't mean that they don't have a hazard related to those aspects of their workplace production operations,” Brown said.
Paul Schiefer, vice president of impact and communications at Amy’s Kitchen, declared that the facilities “stood the test of a wall-to-wall inspection” and validated the company.
But some employees who spoke publicly about their injuries were dismayed by the results.
“This made us look like liars,” wrote a worker in a text in Spanish, referring to the Cal/OSHA findings, which she was still trying to fully understand. KQED is not publishing her name because she fears backlash from management and co-workers.
Inspectors “saw that pretty much everything was OK, but we know the truth,” said the employee, who has worked at the plant for more than two decades.
Inspectors did note that Amy’s has a history of repetitive motion injuries among workers, and that the company must take further preventive action in areas such as the burrito line, which workers had complained about.
“The employer’s past years’ record of RMIs [repetitive motion injuries] showed that there are work areas … that would require ergonomic re-evaluation, exposure control and retraining of employees to minimize RMIS,” the report noted in a memorandum.
Brown said these kinds of memorandums are typically issued when hazards cannot be addressed by regulation.
Some workers at the Santa Rosa plant said tensions have escalated after Amy’s announced it will permanently close another facility in San Jose by mid-September, reportedly eliminating 331 jobs amid a union organizing drive there.
The company said it made the “difficult decision” to cease operations in San Jose because the plant, which primarily made frozen pizzas, was losing $1 million a month and faced other economic hurdles such as supply chain disruptions and an abrupt increase in ingredients’ prices. But union organizers dispute that explanation.
“Amy’s closure of the facility is part of the company’s overall campaign orchestrated against its workers,” said Tho Do, organizing director with UNITE HERE Northern California, in a press release announcing workers protesting the closure.
Some employees at the Santa Rosa plant support unionization, while others oppose it. Shortly after employees reached out to organizers with Teamsters Local 665 to talk about unionizing late last year, the company hired Quest Consulting, a bilingual firm with a “union busting” reputation among labor organizers. Some of the workers said the consultants’ goal was to discourage workers from unionizing.
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