TURLOCK — A 2012 harvester accident that caused an employee to lose a leg resulted in $39,000 in fines for workplace safety violations against Dan Avila & Sons.
Grower Dan Avila plans to contest the fines before the state Division of Occupational Safety and Health appeals board in January, his attorney said. He has faced $75,000 in OSHA penalties on claimed safety violations, and thats besides his troubles with county government over land-use permit violations.
Avila has grown sweet potatoes and watermelons on 1,300 acres and operated a packing and shipping center on Washington Road west of Turlock.
In April, Cal-OSHA proposed the steep fines after investigating the Oct. 17, 2012, incident that caused severe injury to Anabertha Nunez, then 34. The employee was working on a sweet potato harvester when her left foot got caught between a rotating bin and utility pole as the tractor-and-harvester turned near the edge of a field.
The intense pressure crushed the bones in her ankle. Nunez was airlifted to Memorial Medical Center in Modesto, where the leg was amputated at the shin. During the investigation, OSHA found there was no device for signaling the harvester driver to stop in an emergency. Avila also was cited for not having safety guards on rotating parts of the harvester, for not keeping work areas free of obstructions, for narrow catwalks, and for not training the driver to operate the equipment safely.
Nunez told The Bee last year that the driver sat in an enclosed cab and workers had to throw dirt clods against the windows to alert him to problems.
Cal-OSHA cited Avila for six violations and proposed $17,580 in fines for a Feb. 15, 2012, accident in which a woman was injured by an exposed chain drive on a harvester. The worker lost the tip of a finger. The violations included failure to report the accident to OSHA and not having safety guards on the harvesters power-driven parts.
Besides the most recent citations, online records show that Cal-OSHA had cited Dan Avila & Sons for 37 work safety violations since 2008, assessing almost $45,000 in penalties. A Cal-OSHA spokesman said Avila has resolved some citations by agreeing to pay reduced fines.
Through a representative, Avila referred media questions this week to Modesto attorney Kirk McAllister. The attorney said Thursday that Avila is going through the regular appeals process provided by Cal-OSHA.
McAllister said theres no record of a similar injury occurring on the sweet potato harvester before the Oct. 17, 2012, accident.
It wasnt an accident that was foreseeable, he said. Another issue is what the employer has done to remedy the problem. Mr. Avila has adapted all of these machines with a device that can kill the power when an employee pulls a cord.
The attorney added: It was a tragic accident and Mr. Avila is doing everything in his power to make sure it doesnt happen again.
Modesto attorney Adam Stewart is representing Nunez in a workers compensation and willful misconduct lawsuit against Dan Avila & Sons. His client, a mother of two, was fitted with an artificial leg and is unable to work, he said.
Mr. Avilas conduct has risen to the level of complete recklessness, Stewart said. He has disregarded any kind of regulatory permit.
Avila made headlines last year when Stanislaus County officials threatened to shut down the Washington Road processing and shipping center if the business did not comply with permit requirements. The center is across the street from Turlocks newer industrial area.
County officials found that Avila had built a storage building, barn addition and produce stand without getting land-use or construction permits. Without the normal inspections, county leaders said there was no way of knowing if the wiring was up to code or a strong wind could level one of the structures. In addition, trucks using an unapproved driveway were creating a traffic hazard, county staff said.
County Counsel John Doering said this week that the county was close to settling a lawsuit filed last year to force Avila to comply with regulations. Doering said he could not reveal terms of the proposed agreement. Information was not available on the progress Avila has made to obtain county permits and legalize the Washington Road center.
He is trying to get the land-use approvals, Doering said. He does have farmland where he can conduct some of his operations.
Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2321.