Serious and willful safety violations by Goodwill in Sacramento led to the grisly death last year of a 26-year-old loading dock worker at one of its outlet stores, say state regulators who issued six citations and more than $100,000 in fines against the giant nonprofit.
Cal-OSHA, the state’s workplace safety agency, chastised the charity for what it called its failure to train workers at its Franklin Boulevard outlet store in the use of dangerous equipment. The charity also failed to adequately respond to an employee’s written warnings about hazardous working conditions, according to the state’s findings from a six-month investigation.
Abraham Nicholas Garza died Sept. 30 when his head was crushed while helping check the alignment of a heavy metal bin and a trash compactor.
A former Goodwill employee who witnessed the accident said he had tried to warn management about dangerous conditions, verbally and in writing. He blames the death in part on Goodwill’s culture that he said places “profits over people.”
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to The Sacramento Bee
“It’s a money tree,” said the former employee, 56-year-old Dave Goudie.
Goodwill blames Goudie for Garza’s death.
“Goodwill definitely grieves over the tragedy of this accident,” said Goodwill spokeswoman Karen McClaflin. “But this was caused by the negligence of one employee.”
In its findings, Cal-OSHA placed the responsibility for the accident on Goodwill Industries of Sacramento Valley & Northern Nevada. Cal-OSHA spokesman Peter Melton characterized the state’s action against the charity as “significant.”
“It’s serious,” said Melton. “Any time someone is killed on the job, it’s serious. This is why OSHA exists, basically – to prevent and correct these situations that put workers in danger.”
The state’s proposed penalties total $106,675. The most severe citation, which came with a $70,000 fine, was deemed to be “willful-serious” – meaning the employer was aware of a hazardous condition and did not take reasonable steps to address it. In California, a citation categorized as “willful” exposes an employer to possible criminal prosecution.
“None of the authorized employees including (Garza) were provided training in the safe operation of the compactors at the front and back loading dock areas,” Cal-OSHA concluded in its report.
The Cal-OSHA report also said the charity failed to correct “unsafe or unhealthy conditions,” left dangerous moving parts of machinery unguarded, and had no written procedures for the safe operation of the compactor and mobile collection equipment.
Goodwill spokeswoman McClaflin said Friday the organization is appealing the four serious citations, saying “we operate very safely and efficiently here.”
“We recognize the seriousness of the action, but we don’t believe we deserve the citations that came along with it,” said McClaflin, the chief development officer.
She said the organization does have training programs and manuals in place and has expanded its safety department.
Goudie said he met Abraham Garza for the first time on Sept. 30, minutes before the young man was fatally injured when a truck driver released a cable holding the trash bin, pinning his skull between the bin and the compactor.
Sacramento Fire was dispatched at 1:39 p.m. to the front loading dock of the outlet store, where a jumble of cast-offs are sold by the pound from giant plastic tubs inside. It is one of two Goodwill outlets in the Sacramento region that operate stationary waste compactors, which are continuously fed refuse and goods that couldn’t be sold.
Garza, who had been working at the Goodwill outlet at 6648 Franklin Blvd. for only a month, was pronounced dead at 2:39 p.m at UC Davis Medical Center.
Goudie, a commercial driver, said he had an “intuitive sense of urgency” weeks before Garza’s death. He said he began complaining verbally in August about unsafe conditions and risks to untrained employees. On Aug. 25, five weeks before the accident, he put his fears in writing, giving his memo first to his immediate boss on Franklin Boulevard, then forwarding it a short time later to the corporate safety officer at headquarters, he said.
He titled his memo “Employee Workplace Safety Hazard Notification.” At the time of Garza’s death, he had been working for Goodwill for about six months and was on the waste management team.
“Based on my personal observations, most employees now operating compactors at each plant have not received the required training,” he wrote in the Aug. 25 memo. “This exposes Goodwill Industries to fines in the tens of thousands of dollars from Cal-OSHA and, should an employee become injured or killed as a result of this lack of training, civil damages could climb into the millions.
“All of that massive liability exposure is completely UNNECESSARY if the required training is made mandatory by company leadership and reporting supervisors are held accountable for failures to do so.”
The state acknowledged an unnamed employee’s efforts to warn Goodwill management about safety concerns, concluding that the organization “did not diligently assess the hazard exposure of untrained compactor operators.”
Goudie told The Bee Friday he still is in disbelief that he wound up being an eyewitness to the tragedy, standing less than 10 feet from Garza when his head was crushed. He later learned that Garza was the father of a 7-year-old child.
“I had to watch this poor kid’s head get crushed,” he said. “It was very traumatic.
“As a father myself, I was outraged. On top of that, I had to witness the very thing I’d been dogging them about.”
Garza’s relatives have not responded to Bee requests for an interview.
Goodwill has turned the tables, pointing the finger at Goudie. Spokeswoman McClaflin said she is limited by what she can publicly say about a “personnel matter” but stated that the tragedy was not Goodwill’s fault.
“We did our own investigation and determined that this employee was negligent in the situation, and he was terminated,” she said.
Goudie strongly disputed that characterization. He said Garza appeared on the scene while he was checking the equipments’ alignment and he asked the young man to check the alignment on the opposite side. He said he was horrified when Garza inexplicably stuck his head between the bin and compactor and then, suddenly, the cable securing the bin was released by the truck’s driver.
Goudie, who cooperated with Cal-OSHA investigators on the day of the accident and in follow-up interviews, acknowledged that he was fired about a week later and banned from the premises. He said he was told that he had violated safety procedures.
“Excuse me, what safety procedures? There weren’t any,” said the former employee, who said he believes his dismissal was retaliatory for his in-house complaints and cooperation with Cal-OSHA.
Sacramento Goodwill, headquartered at 8001 Folsom Blvd., says on its website that its primary mission is to provide “job training and placement for the disabled and disadvantaged, and vocational access …” Its territory includes 16 counties in Northern California and 13 in Nevada.
In the last 15 years, Goodwill Industries of Sacramento Valley and Northern Nevada has experienced meteoric growth and a surge in executive salaries, according to a Bee examination of the group’s financial records. For consumers, the most visible evidence is the proliferation of “Donation Xpress” stores, drop-off points that have sprung up like dandelions in neighborhoods across the region.
The organization’s stores appeal to diverse populations, from outlets that sell goods for $1.49 a pound to a chic boutique near the Capitol with designer labels.
With the expansion, big money followed. The Sacramento-based Goodwill operation has gone from $6.8 million in gross revenue in 2002 to $68 million in 2015 – a 10-fold increase.
The top executive, Joseph R. Mendez, earned $423,786 in 2015, up from $93,826 in 2002, according to the group’s IRS Forms 990. Adjusted for inflation, that equates to a 240 percent pay bump.
During that same period, total assets went from about $4.9 million to $74 million.
McClaflin acknowledges that the organization has enjoyed tremendous success and growth, which she says has helped Goodwill forge partnerships with other nonprofits.
“Goodwill does a lot in this community,” she said. “We grieve, obviously, over the employee’s death.
“The additional tragedy is that this is a diversion of community funds. I hope it can be resolved without the fines.”
Cal-OSHA spokesman Melton said the appeals process will likely begin before an administrative law judge. After that, the employer has the option of requesting additional reconsideration by the three-member Occupational Safety and Health Appeals Board, which is appointed by the governor.
Findings of OSHA investigation