CUSSETA, AL — When she wasn't employed as a temporary worker at a Cusseta manufacturer that stamps metal parts for Hyundai and Kia vehicles, Regina Allen Elsea was making final plans for her wedding and looking forward to a new life with her future husband.
On June 18, those dreams ended when the 20-year-old Elsea was crushed to death in a robotic machine. That day, the assembly line stopped and she and three of her co-workers entered a robotic station to clear a sensor fault. The robot restarted abruptly, crushing the young woman inside the machine. Her death occurred two weeks before her wedding day.
An investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration has led the agency to issue citations for 23 willful, serious and other-than-serious violations, including 19 egregious instance-by-instance willful violations, to Joon LLC, doing business as Ajin USA of Cusseta. OSHA also cited two staffing agencies — Alliance HR Inc., doing business as Alliance Total Solutions LLC and Joynus Staffing Corp. — for two serious safety violations each. Collectively, the three companies face $2,565,621 in penalties for the federal safety and health violations.
"This senseless tragedy could have been prevented if Regina Elsea's employers had followed proper safety precautions," said Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for Occupational Safety and Health. "In addition, it is unfortunate that Hyundai and Kia, who set strict specifications on the parts they purchase from their suppliers, appear to be less concerned with the safety of the workers who manufacture those parts."
In 2015, Dr. Michaels traveled to Korea and met with Hyundai and Kia's top managers, warning them of hazardous conditions at their suppliers, explaining to them that the automobile firms' production policies were endangering workers at the suppliers' factories.
"Kia and Hyundai's on-demand production targets are so high that workers at their suppliers are often required to work six and sometimes seven days a week to meet the targets," said Dr. Michaels. "It appears that — to reduce its own costs in meeting these targets — this supplier cut corners on safety, at the expense of workers' lives and limbs."
OSHA issued willful citations to Ajin USA for:
- Failing to utilize energy control procedures to prevent machinery from starting up during maintenance and servicing.
- Exposing workers to caught-in, struck-by and crushing hazards by allowing them to enter a robotic cell without shutting down and securing hazardous stored energy according to safety procedures.
- Failing to provide safety locks to isolate hazardous energy.
- Exposing employees to crushing and amputation hazards due to improper machine guarding.
OSHA issued two serious citations to Ajin USA for exposing workers to laceration hazards by allowing them to work with parts having sharp edges while improperly wearing or not wearing protective sleeves and not installing effective shields or curtains on welding machines to protect the operator and others from flying sparks.
The agency also issued two serious citations to Alliance and Joynus for failing to utilize specific safety procedures to control potentially hazardous stored energy during maintenance and servicing and not providing or ensuring employees had locks to properly shutdown machinery.
Alliance and Joynus, both based in Opelika, provide approximately 250 temporary employees to Ajin USA. Elsea was hired to work at Ajin through Alliance Total Solutions.
"This was a preventable incident - Ajin USA only had to ensure that proper safety measures were followed to de-energize the robot before the workers entered the station," said Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA's regional administrator in Atlanta. "Incidents like this one are not isolated and that is why OSHA has developed and implemented its Regional Emphasis Program on Safety Hazards in the Auto Parts Industry."
The agency has also placed Ajin USA in its Severe Violators Enforcement Program. The program focuses on recalcitrant employers that endanger workers by committing willful, repeat or failure-to-abate violations. Under the program, OSHA may inspect any of the employer's facilities if it has reasonable grounds to believe there are similar violations.
Based in Korea, Ajin USA, is a global auto parts supplier with plants in South Korea, China, Vietnam and the U.S. It employs approximately 700 workers at the Cusseta facility.
Alliance Total Solutions is a staffing agency with branches in Alabama, Georgia and Tennessee with over 4,000 employees. Joynus Staffing Corp. has offices in Georgia and employs over 600 workers.
The companies have 15 business days from receipt of its citations and proposed penalties to contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.