CHICAGO — By the time Carlos Centeno arrived at the Loyola University Hospital Burn Center, more than 98 minutes had elapsed since his head, torso, arms and legs had been scalded by a 185-degree solution of water and citric acid inside a factory on this city’s southwestern edge.
The laborer, assigned to the plant that afternoon in November 2011 by a temporary staffing agency, was showered with the solution after it erupted from the open hatch of a 500-gallon chemical tank he was cleaning. Factory bosses, federal investigators would later contend, refused to call an ambulance as he awaited help, shirtless and screaming. He arrived at Loyola only after first being driven to a clinic by a co-worker.
At admission Centeno had burns over 80 percent of his body and suffered a pain level of 10 on a scale of 10, medical records show. Clad in a T-shirt, he wore no protective gear other than rubber boots and latex gloves in the factory, which makes household and personal-care products.
Centeno, 50, died three weeks later, on December 8, 2011.
A narrative account of the accident that killed him — and a description of conditions inside the Raani Corp. plant in Bedford Park, Ill. — are included in a U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration memorandum obtained by the Center for Public Integrity. The 11-page OSHA memo, dated May 10, 2012, argues that safety breakdowns in the plant warrant criminal prosecution — a rarity in worker death cases.
The story behind Centeno’s death underscores the burden faced by some of America’s 2.5 million temporary, or contingent, workers — a growing but mostly invisible group of laborers who often toil in the least desirable, most dangerous jobs. Such workers are hurt more frequently than permanent employees and their injuries often go unrecorded, new research shows.
Raani’s “lack of concern for employee safety was tangible” and injuries in its factory were “abundant,” Thomas Galassi, head of OSHA’s Directorate of Enforcement Programs, wrote in the memo to David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for occupational safety and health.
Raani managers failed to put Centeno under a safety shower after he was burned and did not call 911 even though his skin was peeling and he was clearly in agony, Galassi wrote. “It took a minimum of 38 minutes before [Centeno] arrived at a local occupational health clinic … after having been transported by and in the vehicle of another employee while he shivered in shock and yelled, ‘hurry, hurry!’ ”
A clinic worker called an ambulance, which, according to Chicago Fire Department records, arrived at 2:26 p.m. Centeno was in “moderate to severe distress with 70-80% 1st and mostly 2nd degree burns to head, face, neck, chest, back, buttocks, arms and legs,” the records show. Paramedics administered morphine.
“The EMT’s were horrified and angered at the employer, for not calling 911 at the scene and further delaying his care by transferring him to a clinic instead of a hospital,” Galassi’s memo says.
John Newquist, who retired from OSHA in September after 30 years with the agency, said the case was among the most disturbing he encountered as an assistant regional administrator in Chicago.
“I cannot remember a case where somebody got severely burned and nobody called 911,” said Newquist, a former compliance officer who investigated more than 100 fatal accidents during his career. “It’s beyond me.”
On May 15, OSHA proposed a $473,000 fine against Raani for 14 alleged violations, six of which are classified as willful, indicating “plain indifference” toward employee safety and health. No decision has been made on whether the case will be referred to the Department of Justice for possible prosecution, agency spokesman Jesse Lawder said. OSHA hadn’t inspected the Raani factory for 18 years prior to the accident.
“It’s just wrong, what happened,” Centeno’s 26-year-old son, Carlos Jr., said of Raani managers’ actions after his father’s accident. “They were not thinking of him as a human being.”
Raani is appealing the OSHA citations. H. Patrick Morris, a lawyer for the company, did not answer questions about the alleged violations. Morris said, however, that while Centeno was “a good worker and nice person,” the company has “good and valid defenses” to the allegations in the family’s lawsuit. Raani has yet to file court documents outlining its position.
Jeffrey Kehl, a lawyer for Ron’s Staffing, declined to comment.