Montgomery, Alabama - JOON LLC, d/b/a AJIN USA (Ajin), an auto-parts manufacturing company, was sentenced in federal court Monday in Montgomery, Alabama, after pleading guilty to a charge related to the death of a machinery operator.
Regina Elsea, who was 20 years old, worked at Ajin’s Cusseta, Alabama, facility. On June 18, 2016, she entered an enclosure — called a “cell” — containing several robots and other pieces of machinery. While she was inside the cell, troubleshooting a sensor fault, one of the machines started up and Elsea was struck by a robotic arm. She died of her injuries.
The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSH Act) requires employers to develop and utilize procedures to de-energize machinery during maintenance and servicing activities to prevent the kind of unplanned startup that killed Elsea. These procedures are often referred to as “lockout/tagout.” Ajin knew these procedures were required and had developed them, but Ajin also knew that — over a period of at least two years — supervisors did not effectively enforce them.
In the 15 minutes prior to Elsea’s fatal injury — in the presence of their supervisors — workers entered cells to troubleshoot machinery without following lockout/tagout no less than five times, and the supervisors did not take any action to stop or reprimand them. In two other instances, the supervisors themselves entered a cell without following lockout/tagout. At the time of Elsea’s fatal injury, several individuals were inside the cell, none of whom had followed lockout/tagout procedures to de-energize the machinery within the cell.
Ajin pleaded guilty to a willful violation of the OSH Act standard requiring the use of lockout/tagout procedures. U.S. Magistrate Judge Stephen Michael Doyle sentenced Ajin to pay a $500,000 fine — the statutory maximum — $1,000,000 in restitution to Elsea’s estate, and a three-year term of probation, during which Ajin must comply with a safety compliance plan, overseen by a third-party auditor. Among other things, the safety compliance plan requires a full review of Ajin’s lockout/tagout procedures, weekly inspections to ensure compliance, and creation of a mechanism for employees to report any safety concerns about the facility anonymously.
“Regina’s tragic death was preventable,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Jonathan D. Brightbill of the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “OSH Act standards exist to protect American workers, but employers must actually implement them. When safety policies exist only on paper, tragedies like this occur. Ajin knew its supervisors and managers were turning a blind eye to the company’s safety procedures. Now, Ajin must take responsibility for its conduct. It will implement the safety compliance plan, and work to make its facility safer for its employees. Employers should be aware that they must follow workplace safety laws.”
“Every worker expects to return home safely at the end of his or her shift,” said U.S. Attorney Louis V. Franklin Sr. of the Middle District of Alabama. “The OSH Act was passed to ensure that workers could trust that their employers create and maintain a safe work environment. While most companies abide by the OSH Act, the unfortunate reality is that some of them do not. Ajin failed to comply with the OSH Act and, as a direct result of their failure, Regina Elsea did not return home safely at the end of her shift. Her death was preventable and Ajin’s failure to keep her out of harm’s way is inexcusable. I hope this prosecution sends a message to companies that people are their most valuable resource and complying with the OSH Act is a must in protecting its employees.”
“Employers are responsible for worker safety and health, and the failure in this situation was tragic,” said Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Labor for Occupational Safety and Health Loren Sweatt. “Well-known safety procedures were repeatedly ignored that could have prevented this tragedy. While nothing can ever replace the loss of life, the court has sent a clear message that such disregard for worker safety is unacceptable.”
The case was prosecuted by Assistant U.S. Attorney Stephanie Billingslea and former Assistant U.S. Attorney Ben M. Baxley of the Middle District of Alabama and Trial Attorney Erica H. Pencak of the Environment and Natural Resources Division’s Environmental Crimes Section. The case was investigated by the U.S. Department of Labor Office of Investigations.