PROVIDENCE JOURNAL

February 17, 2008

 

He crossed the U.S. border, into the maw of a machine

 

By KAREN LEE ZINER, Journal staff writer

Leonardo Cos Elias arrived illegally in America with the sweat-and-blood skills of a subsistence farmer. In his native Guatemala, he raised maize and beans in the highlands and traveled south to chop sugar cane. He could wield a machete but not a pen: he never learned to read or write in either Ki’ché — his indigenous Mayan dialect — or in any other language.

But in America, Cos found factory work at the helm of a complicated machine. It mangled him for life.

Through a temporary agency, Cos began working last year at Packaging Concepts Ltd. in Lincoln, a manufacturer of display cases and furniture. First, friends say, he swept floors. Then he worked at a computer-numerically controlled (CNC) router, a high-speed machine that can cut metals, acrylic and wood while simultaneously engraving — or carving — intricate designs.

On Dec. 14, Cos became trapped in the machine and lay pinned to a table while overhead routing drills bore down on him.

The machine tore into his left leg and buttock. His leg, half his pelvis and his buttock were amputated.

He cannot sit up without toppling over.

The 32-year-old thus joined the ranks of Hispanic immigrants across the country — legal and illegal — whose injury and fatality rates rank higher than other populations, particularly in construction and agricultural work. Safety advocates say language and cultural barriers often impede training.

Fear of speaking up to employers over health and safety issues makes them vulnerable, whether they are here legally or not.

In this case, lawyers representing Cos are investigating whether machine function and/or safety devices — including a safety cable that triggers a kill switch— could have played a role in the accident.

“There may be an issue as far as safety devices, including a safety cable that may have been disconnected before the incident,” said one of the lawyers, Michael T. Eskey, of the Providence law firm, DeLuca & Weizenbaum.

“We are looking at all the facts to be able to establish what happened at the time of injury,” said Eskey, including “whether the machine was defective and that caused the injury; whether there were safety devices that came with the machine, whether they were disconnected or disabled, and whether the machine could still operate without those critical safety devices on it.

“All that would be taken into consideration to determine who is responsible, or who may have had responsibility for what occurred here,” Eskey said. That could include “other companies and persons” besides PCL.

Company officials have declined comment, citing an ongoing investigation by the federal Occupational Safety & Health Administration.

OSHA area director Patrick J. Griffin, based in Providence, said the agency has up to six months to issue a report.

The company, a subsidiary of Abbott Industries in New York, has been cited numerous times by OSHA for what OSHA defines as serious violations. Since 2003, the company has paid at least $28,650 in fines for exposing workers to potential carcinogens and machinery hazards, among other violations.

Whatever the outcome of the investigation, Cos’ body has been grotesquely altered, and his future is uncertain.

Without his leg and hip, he said in an interview last month at Rhode Island Hospital, “I won’t be able to carry wood logs, or a sack of fertilizer.” How, he wonders, will he feed his six children in Guatemala?

COS IS a slight man with jet black hair and high cheekbones.

He comes from the Department of El Quiché, a poor, arid state in the Guatemalan highlands that remains a stronghold of Mayan indigenous culture. His native dialect is Ki’ché. His secondary language is Spanish.

From his hospital bed, Cos said he was an agricultural worker, wielding a machete in the mountains.

“But we are very poor,” he said. “That is why we come here. If there was money over there, why would we leave our family or friends?”

His wife, Imelda Martin Reyes, spoke about Cos through interpreters during phone interviews from Guatemala.

“His mother left when he was little, and his father died when he was eight years old,” she said. “So he grew up by himself, with no father and no mother, just with his grandmother.” He never went to school, and cannot read or write.

The couple has been together since they were teenagers, she said. They live in a typical adobe house with a kitchen, and one room where they sleep with their five daughters and one son, whose ages range from 3 to 15. They have no running water.

Her husband is very friendly, she said. “He likes to talk to other people.”

He also worked “very hard. He used to go to the farm and cut coffee at certain times. After the season is over for the coffee, he cuts sugar cane and spends time with his family.”

He played the guitar “very, very well, but he was trying to play piano,” practicing on an organ at a nearby church.

But poverty led Cos to leave in September 2006, she said. He paid a “coyote” — a smuggler — $5,000 to help him cross the border. The coyote holds title to Cos’ land, until Cos pays off the debt, she said; Cos also pays substantial interest.

“When he left Guatemala, he didn’t say goodbye to his children. He didn’t want his kids to get sad and depressed,” she said. “When he got to the United States, he called his children and told them where he was.”

His journey took him more than 2,500 miles from home.

He made friends. He looked for work.

A SPANISH-LANGUAGE action movie plays on TV, in an apartment in a Guatemalan enclave of Providence. The aroma of arroz con pollo wafts from the kitchen, and every now and then, comes the clang of pots and pans.

Four or five men live here, and friends drop by. All work, either day shifts, night shifts or both. They share rent and pooled their money to buy the TV that sits in a living room with comfortable couches.

A Guatemalan flag and porcelain knickknacks sit on a mantle.

Cos shares a cramped but tidy bedroom with one other man. They have two twin mattresses, covered with thin, fuzzy children’s blankets. On Cos’ side of the room sits a battered dresser. A photo of his wife and two of their six children rests on top.

The roommates, and friends, spoke about Cos through an interpreter. They asked to remain anonymous.

“He used to come home and cook — chicken, beans, eggs, tortillas — then he would rest and go to bed, then get up for the next day,” said one of his friends. He loved to play soccer in summer, at different fields in the city. On Sundays, he watched televised football and soccer games and studied the players’ moves.

Among Cos’ few possessions is a video, “to learn English,” the friend said.

Cos called his family several times a week and frequently wired money home. He sometimes attended Spanish Mass at a nearby church.

“He likes to talk a lot, with his friends, or even if he doesn’t know the person. He tries to make friends here, from everywhere.”

Last year, his friends said, Cos went to the CoWorx Staffing Services temporary agency on Westminster Street, in Providence, to find a job.

The agency placed Cos and a friend at Packaging Concepts Ltd., where, according to the friend and others familiar with the company, the work force includes many Hispanic immigrants.

The Journal asked Brenda L. Franklin, regional director, sales and operations for CoWorx, a series of questions about Cos’ employ at PCL, including whether the company was aware of his illegal status.

She sent this statement: “As recently reported by the local media, an employee of CoWorx Staffing Services LLC was seriously injured in a workplace accident while providing services to a CoWorx client. CoWorx is committed to health and safety of its employees. Our thoughts are with Mr. Cos and his family as he continues to recover.”

Attorney Stephen J. Dennis, who is representing Cos’ workers’ compensation interests, said CoWorx, through its insurer, is now paying compensation benefits of $245.49 per week that Cos is entitled to under Rhode Island law, plus current and future medical costs.

COS STARTED off sweeping floors, according to his friend. And then, “a friend [at the plant] asked him if he wanted to learn the CNC machine.”

According to Griffin, OSHA’s regional director, the CNC router is a 1997 ZR model made by the Heian Corp in Japan.

Cos was interviewed briefly at Rhode Island Hospital, where he spoke through an interpreter. He said he had little training.

“They told me to use specific drills for specific purposes,” he said. Cos added that he does not know how to read or write in any language, “but I figured it out by looking at the numbers” and diagrams on the machine.

Something went awry toward the end of the 3-to-11 shift on Friday, Dec. 14.

Asked what he remembers of the accident, Cos said, “What happened was, the machine pulled me in and I couldn’t pull myself out.” He said he was twisted and face up as “a table” [with drills or blades] was moving down toward him.

“There was no way to hit the button to stop the machine,” he said.

He said a co-worker “pressed a red button” and stopped the machine, “then pulled me out.”

According to Dr. Steven G. McCloy, an occupational physician experienced in treating non-English-speaking workers, the machine lacerated Cos’ femoral artery and split his hip joint. Two community organizations that work with Guatemalan workers asked him to advise them on Mr. Cos’ status.The Lincoln Police Department report states that two officers responded at 8:40 p.m. to an industrial accident at PCL, at 15 Wellington Rd.

According to the report, two workers told the police that a third worker “ran over to them asking for help,” then brought them to a machine “where a co-worker was crushed in between a moving portion and stationary portion.” The three men told the police they hit an emergency shutoff and freed Cos before rescue personnel arrived.

Lincoln Rescue Chief John McCaughey said his department received a call from PCL at 8:38 p.m. He said rescue workers found Cos “lying inside a routing machine.” Cos had suffered multiple injuries to the torso, after “his stomach came in contact with a high-speed mechanism of a machine.”

The rescue left at 9:12 p.m. — 34 minutes later, and arrived with Cos at the Rhode Island Hospital emergency room at 9:22. The Lincoln police released its full report to The Journal in December, days after the accident.

McCaughey, the rescue chief, read part of his department’s report to a reporter, but declined to release the report, citing medical privacy reasons. The Journal is contesting that. Unable to save Cos’ leg, physicians at Rhode Island Hospital amputated it, and part of his hip, said Carlos Avila Sandoval, Guatemalan consul general for the region. Avila Sandoval represents Cos’ interests as a Guatemalan citizen.

Three days after the accident, company officials reported it to OSHA, according to Griffin, area director. Griffin said by law they did not have to: employers must notify OSHA only if a person is killed, or at least three people are brought to the hospital.

Griffin also said that “99.9 percent of the time,” police and fire departments secure the scene, and notify OSHA of serious accidents. Neither the Lincoln police nor rescue department notified OSHA of the accident, he said.

For several weeks, Cos remained unconscious and in critical condition.

Cos ultimately regained consciousness and his condition improved; he is expected to enter rehabilitation.

Meanwhile, his friends say he is grappling with what lies ahead.

“He is thinking about what is going to happen now. Who is going to take care of him? How is he going to work?” a friend said. “Now he wants to sit down the way we are sitting down. But he can’t. He falls over.”

Plant employees said PCL offered counseling to employees after the accident.

IN 2002, OSHA’s then-assistant secretary of labor testified in response to concerns “that immigrants, and particularly Hispanic immigrants, face a greater risk of occupational injury or death than other populations,” in part because they are hired disproportionately into the most dangerous jobs. He noted that OSHA had established outreach programs for workers and employers and other efforts to address those issues. Those efforts continue today, across the country.

According to federal Bureau of Labor Statistics, the on-the-job death rate for Hispanic immigrants in recent years has been as much as 20 percent higher than for whites or blacks, particularly in construction and agricultural work.

News reports across the country have chronicled deaths and injuries among immigrant workers in low-end jobs. Construction workers buried alive in trenches. Migrant workers poisoned by crop pesticides. Industrial workers exposed to hazardous chemicals.

Cathleen Caron, founder and executive director of the Global Workers Justice Alliance, a New York-based group that works to protect migrant workers’ rights, said the presence of illegal workers in the labor force “has definitely led to a decline in health and safety standards in the workplace. It’s irrefutable. It revolves around vulnerability. People are simply too afraid to complain about workplace conditions because they are worried about being deported.”

Caron said those safety issues affect legal and illegal workers alike. Any accident in an unsafe workplace “is not just going to hurt an undocumented worker. It’s going to hurt the teenager who is working a summer job,” or any other legal worker.

The presence of illegal workers also makes it difficult, if not impossible, to unionize.

When workers are afraid, “you lose the solidarity of a work force if only a few people are going to complain. It takes rallying. But when you have a segment who are never going to do it because they are so scared, it will discourage workers who are legally here to fear job security. That’s a race to the bottom.”

“The story of Mr. Cos is one that is repeated every day in the United States, and is visible in the accident and death rates of Latino workers,” said Rebecca Smith, of the National Employment Law Project in Washington. “In 2006, 937 Latino workers died on the job, most of them immigrant workers.” She called those rates “beyond tragic,” and suggested “a more robust enforcement scheme at OSHA.”

Jim Celenza, executive director of the nonprofit, Rhode Island Committee on Occupational Safety & Health, said many injuries to immigrant workers, particularly those who are here illegally, go unreported and remain “under the radar.” Or, the workers may be reluctant to complain because they do not want to jeopardize other family members who work at the same company. He said many injuries or complaints are reported in safer settings, such as community meetings or to church groups.

James Platner, associate director at The Center for Construction Research and Training in Maryland, said, “For many of the immigrants from southern Mexico, especially Chiapas, and Guatemala, Spanish is not the language they speak at home, which creates challenges for training. Also, there is a relatively large fraction of these workers who are not very literate in any language, so changing warning signs to Spanish may not help much. English may be a fourth or even fifth language for some of these workers.”

COS’ ACCIDENT is one of several recent local cases underscoring injury or maltreatment of illegal immigrant workers.

Edgar Velásquez, an illegal Mexican immigrant, slashed his face open with a chain saw while working for a Warwick tree service owner in 2006. He was deported after he tried to pursue a workers’ compensation claim against his boss.

By rare exception, the government allowed Velásquez to return, and last month, he won a $30,000 settlement against his employer.

Last year, the owner and managers at a New Bedford manufacturing plant were accused in a federal indictment of knowingly hiring hundreds of illegal workers arrested during a raid at the plant. Workers alleged abuse and health and safety issues, ranging from working without heat in winter or air conditioning in summer, fines for staying too long in the bathroom, and use of only one door for access and egress. The case is still pending.

Dennis, the lawyer representing Cos, also represented Velásquez. He said it is fortunate that CoWorx, the temp agency that hired Cos, had workers’ compensation insurance, but it is not clear how long the weekly benefits will last. Avila Sandoval, the Guatemalan general consul, is working to have those benefits transferred to Cos’ wife and children.

Said Dennis, “It’s an acute case — one of the most acute cases I’ve ever seen. It’s a horrendous injury. I’m trying to get the best medical care he can get and the best possible medical outcome.” Dennis also said other lawyers who are assisting him are exploring “whether there is anything from a products liability” standpoint and examining “other theories of negligence.”

Sandoval recommended Dennis to Cos because of Dennis’ success in the Velásquez case. Dennis has brought several other lawyers onto his team.

“This is a Guatemalan citizen,” said Sandoval. “Therefore as a consul I have to deal with whatever his interests are, knowing that he has rights even if he is an illegal immigrant. I am doing everything possible to make sure his needs, economical, physical, legal, psychological, are all taken care of.”

ROOSTERS CROWED in the background as Imelda Reyes, Cos’ wife, spoke by phone from the Guatemalan highlands. The process required two interpreters: a neighbor translated from Ki’ché to Spanish, and an interpreter in Providence translated from Spanish to English.

Reyes said Rhode Island Hospital physicians initially called her with updates on Cos, but she said she has not heard from them recently.

However, she said, “Leonardo called, and said that he feels better. He said he felt bad about his accident,” but she told him, ‘Don’t feel bad, you have ”your health and your hands, so don’t worry if you have one leg.’

For now, Reyes is trying to pick crops to sustain her family. Neighbors are also helping.

Meanwhile, she said, her children are constantly asking, ‘What is the situation for Daddy?’ Any time they see the phone ring, they say, ‘Is that ” The couple’s three-year-old child told a neighbor,Daddy? How is Daddy doing?’ ‘Oh my daddy, he is missing a leg.’

Reyes said, “When Leonardo gets better and everything gets solved, I want him back so I can take care of him. … It doesn’t matter if we have to suffer together, as long as he’s here.”