By Matt Coker
By R. Scott Moxley
By Charles Lam
By Nick Schou
By Gustavo Arellano
By Gustavo Arellano
By Steve Lowery
By R. Scott Moxley
Taken to the Cleaners
Is an Irvine-based industrial-laundry company cheating workers out of a living wage? Three California cities say yes
The toxic chlorine-gas mist rose from the floor drains around 7 a.m. on May 11, 2007, at an industrial-laundry facility owned and operated by Prudential Overall Supply of Irvine. The night before, an employee had mistakenly poured sulfuric acid from the hazardous-materials storage area through a wash pipeline normally used to feed bleach to the 800-pound washing machines at the plant.
The next morning, several hours after the 35 or so women and a few men had filed into work at the laundry in the northern San Diego County town of Vista, a mysterious cloud hovered over them like a dense coastal fog. Plant managers had noticed the sulfuric-acid mistake the night before and had stopped washing garments, but they didn't wash out the pipeline before the 4 a.m. shift started. Sometime early that morning, water was flushed through the pipe before bleach was reintroduced. But it wasn't enough to keep the two chemicals from mixing, and a cloud erupted when the bleach interacted with a residual amount of sulfuric acid. What followed among a majority of the workers in the factory-like facility were coughing spells, nausea, dizziness and a few cases of fainting.
Eloina Solano was in one corner of the plant, surrounded by towels and the usual loud conveyor-belt buzz. She was working on the 1,000 or so towels she needed to fold that hour. "I said to a co-worker that it really smelled like Clorox. I thought maybe the clothes had been washed with too much bleach," she says. "I turned and looked, and I noticed a woman coughing and coughing. But by then, you couldn't see much anymore. Everything was white."
Solano and a handful of other employees from the Vista facility who spoke to the Weekly say they didn't hear an alarm or an announcement to evacuate, so most kept working. The emergency alarm buttons at the facility had not been pressed. But the workers say they had never been told those existed. They had never been informed of any evacuation plan, they say, so some kept on working, while others whispered to one another to get out.
"I turned around and didn't see many people," Solano says. "I told my co-worker, but we decided to keep working. Finally, I turned around, and even she was gone. By then, my face and my throat were burning."
"We were being poisoned," says Sergio Rosales, who requested a small mask and was not told to evacuate. The mat washer had been with the company for four years. "We'd never been trained for what we were supposed to do in case of an emergency."
Remedios Lopez fainted, as did a few other women. "After an hour, they wanted us to go back inside," she says. But some workers insisted they needed to see a doctor; managers eventually authorized a call to the fire department, she says. Twenty-one employees were taken to the hospital and released the same day. Hazardous-materials units arrived once the fumes had dissipated and declared the work environment safe. No accident-related citations were immediately issued by the California Occupational Health and Safety Administration (Cal/OSHA), which conducted on-site interviews that day.
At the time, vice president and company spokesman Jerry Martin told the San Diego Union-Tribune that the "safety procedures that we have in place at Prudential were acted upon." Recently, Martin told the Weeklythat the incident was minor and that the company had not been cited by Cal/OSHA, which, he said, only found minor labeling infractions when it conducted a subsequent investigation.
But according to Cal/OSHA, that investigation found that employees administering the vats of bleach, sulfuric acid and other wash chemicals had never been trained on potential toxic interactions and that the pipes used to transport such chemicals weren't labeled; they found that the company did not have an effective emergency-evacuation plan and that employees were not familiar with the company's injury- and illness-prevention program. Cal/OSHA cited the company, fined it $1,950 in November 2007, and required that it implement a proper prevention program, label its pipelines, and train employees on hazardous materials.
The accident certainly reveals the dangers inherent to this little-known industry. But Prudential's response to the incident also shows that, when it comes to its workforce, the 75-year-old, Irvine-based company—the state's largest industrial launderer—has a tendency to say one thing and do another. Martin says this dour image of the company is nothing but a targeted smear campaign by UNITE HERE, the union that represents laundry workers and has contracts at eight of Prudential's 16 California facilities, including Vista, workers of which voted for union representation this April.
But safety is only one aspect of the union's two-pronged effort on behalf of the workers at Prudential's facilities. The other is to ensure that its members are aware of their rights to higher pay under "living-wage" contracts that the company holds with cities throughout the state and the military, says Laura Moran, one of two UNITE HERE researchers in California who have investigated Prudential.