2nd worker in 5 years dies at seafood processing plant

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(WPRI) — An employee of Sea Watch International died last month after he was injured while operating equipment, prompting the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to open an investigation into the seafood processing plant.

The company on Friday confirmed the death of maintenance technician Billy Couto. The Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health (MassCOSH) said Couto was injured while working on equipment on Jan. 2, 2019, while OSHA said he succumbed to those injuries days later.

Couto was actually the second worker to die at the New Bedford facility in recent years. In 2014, another employee died while working on equipment.

“If, in fact, the exact same violation occurred five years later and that’s what is confirmed, then Sea Watch International isn’t doing what they need to do to ensure their workers are safe and, more importantly, not learning from tragic fatalities,” MassCOSH Executive Director Jodi Sugerman-Brozan said.

A spokesperson for OSHA said in 2014, Sea Watch International was cited for 11 violations – seven of which were deemed serious – resulting in $26,600 in fines.

In that previous case, the company was cited for failing to implement lockout/tagout procedures that protect workers who clean machines, along with fall hazards and chemical hazard communication deficiencies, according to OSHA. 

“Our workplace is still trying to cope with Billy’s Couto’s death,” Sea Watch International Marketing Manager Tracey Hallbauer said in a statement. “Billy was a fine man and excellent maintenance technician. The circumstances that resulted in his injury were tragic and unforeseeable. Sea Watch is committed to workplace safety, but even with robust precautions, accidents can happen when humans make decisions in the moment. The prior incident was unrelated. Regardless of cause, OSHA investigates any workplace accident resulting in death, as the agency should. We keep Billy and his family in our prayers.” 

Rhode Island-based Workforce Unlimited Inc., which supplied temporary workers to the plant, was also cited for five violations in 2014 – three deemed serious – and was fined approximately $5,000.

MassCOSH says the seafood processing industry in New England is primarily made up of temporary immigrant workers.

Centro Comunitario de Trabajadores (CCT), a company that serves New Bedford’s immigrant working residents, is calling for criminal charges to be brought against Sea Watch International.

“If Sea Watch took its responsibilities to keep its employees safe, William and Victor would still be with us,” CCT Executive Director Adrian Ventura said in a statement. “If Sea Watch is found to have skirted safety procedures, we call on the Massachusetts Attorney General to file criminal charges. We owe it to these workers’ families and those still at risk on the job at Sea Watch to make sure the plant is held responsible for their actions or lack of action.”

OSHA’s inspection of Sea Watch international is still ongoing. It will seek to determine if there were any violations of workplace safety standards in connection with Couto’s death.

Sea Watch International describes itself as the largest harvester and processor of clam products in the world.

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