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Bill Aims To Improve Workplace Safety

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TULSA, Okla. (AP) -- Federal lawmakers plan to introduce legislation this week that increases penalties for companies that violate workplace safety rules, weeks after an employee died after becoming trapped in a dryer in a Tulsa plant.

The Protecting America's Workers Act would amend the 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act to protect millions of employees not currently covered by OSHA, protect workers who blow the whistle on unsafe workplace conditions and improve public accountability concerning safety violations.

The bill, expected to be introduced Thursday in the U.S. Senate and House, would penalize companies a minimum of $50,000 for a willful OSHA violation that leads to a workers death. Currently, the statutes civil penalty subsection provides that if there is a willful OSHA violation of any type, the minimum fine is $5,000, said Laura Capps, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Ted Kennedy, D-Mass., who will introduce the bill.

"No worker should be hurt or killed on the job," said Matt Painter, with Unite Here, a labor union that lobbied for a tougher law.

Cintas Corp. employee Eleazar Torres-Gomez died March 6 when he became trapped for at least 20 minutes in a dryer that can reach a temperature of 300 degrees at the company's Tulsa plant.

His death was the second serious incident within the company in a matter of weeks, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters said. The shattered arm of a Yakima, Wash., employee had to be sawed out of a washing machine in February, the union said.

Days after Torres-Gomez died, five members of a U.S. House subcommittee that deals with workplace issues requested a federal investigation into the death. The lawmakers said the death could have been prevented because a 2005 Occupational Safety and Health Administration memo warned about the need for special protection from the type of equipment used at the Tulsa plant.

"Eleazar Torres-Gomez's death shows the need for stronger laws that will make companies like Cintas start taking its responsibility to eliminate deadly hazards seriously," Painter said.

Cincinnati-based Cintas, the nation's largest uniform service, issued a statement blaming Torres-Gomez for failing to follow safety procedures and said it had been working with OSHA during the federal agency's ongoing investigation.

"With the best safety record in the industry, it is clear no one cares more about protecting American workers than Cintas," said company spokeswoman Pamela Lowe. "The incident in Tulsa was a tragic accident, but unrelated to the concerns apparently being addressed in this legislation."

U.S. Rep. Phil Hare, D-Ill., one of the lawmakers who sought the federal investigation, will meet this week with family members of Torres-Gomez, a spokesman said Tuesday.

Related stories:

3/7/2007 - Unions Critical Of A Tulsa Plant

3/13/2007 - Congressmen Seeks Cintas Investigation

3/23/2007 - Cintas Blames Death On Employee's Failure To Follow Training
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