A California food manufacturer has taken the unusual step of issuing a public letter following a workplace fatality

The death of 62-year-old Jose Melena is being investigated by the California Division of Occupational Safety and Health, which said it could take months to determine the cause of the accident.

Bumble Bee Foods’ President and CEO Chris Lischewski released the following statemement yesterday:

Bumble Bee Mourns Loss of Employee Jose Melena

An Open Letter to the Community from Bumble Bee Foods

On Thursday, October 11, our colleague Jose Melena lost his life in a tragic accident at our processing facility in Santa Fe Springs, California. All of us at Bumble Bee Foods were shocked and saddened by this loss, and as we search for answers, our prayers and support are with the Melena family.

Investigations into this incident are being conducted by the California Occupational Safety and Health Administration (CalOSHA) and Bumble Bee. While we’re still working to understand just what happened that morning, we do know that Jose, a highly respected six-year veteran of the plant, was found by his co-workers inside one of the plant’s commercial pressure cookers shortly before 7:00 a.m. These 38-foot-long cylindrical chambers, called retorts, are where baskets of sealed cans of product are sterilized before heading to the final labeling stage of the canning process. Jose was a skilled operator and had worked with this equipment for many years.

Upon discovering the accident, plant management immediately called for emergency medical help and contacted both the police and CalOSHA. Unfortunately, Jose was pronounced dead at the scene. While CalOSHA cleared the factory to resume operations on Thursday afternoon, we shut down the facility for three days out of respect for Jose and in recognition of the emotional impact this had on his co-workers. Grief counselors have been available to our employees ever since the tragedy. All product being processed at the time of the accident was discarded safely, even though there was no product contamination.

At this point, it is still not clear how this could have happened. From a process standpoint, it takes between 20 and 30 minutes to load a retort with about 12 to 14 baskets of canned product to be sterilized. The baskets are loaded by an employee operating a pallet jack. This was Jose’s primary responsibility. Once the baskets are finished processing, they are pulled out of the retort by a forklift. We are not aware of any such accident ever occurring before with this machinery.

As we continue to work with CalOSHA, we are implementing mandatory retraining of all personnel on standard operating procedures, reviewing all safety procedures and stressing the importance of following procedures to maximize employee safety. We expect the coroner’s office to announce the conclusions of their investigation shortly. The Whittier police department has informed us that they have ruled out foul play. And CalOSHA has stated publicly that their investigation could take several months to complete.

Most important of all, we have been reaching out and providing support to the Melena family during this very difficult time. We miss Jose very much and our hearts go out to his wife, children, grandchildren and friends. This unprecedented tragedy has been devastating for all of us at Bumble Bee.

We appreciate the support we have received from so many people and thank you for your understanding during this trying time.