Unicold Corp. has agreed to pay $197,000 in penalties and to make health and safety improvements at its refrigerated food warehouse in Honolulu’s airport area.
The agreement ends two years of litigation between the Honolulu-based company and the U.S. Department of Labor, as well as the Hawaii state Department of Labor and Industrial Relations.
A joint inspection by state and federal investigators in 2013 found nearly every emergency exit door or route locked, sealed shut, blocked, or otherwise impossible to use, according to a statement. Further, inspectors found hazards relating to Unicold’s use of ammonia as a refrigerant. Ammonia is a corrosive compound, exposure to even small amounts of which can cause eye, nose and throat irritation. At higher levels, exposure can cause corneal blindness or immediate death.
Unicold initially was cited for 63 health and safety violations and was subject to paying proposed fines of $251,330.
Unicold contested the citations, leading to two years of court filings and ultimately, the agreement announced Monday.
“Luck is the only reason that we are not investigating a multi-fatality disaster here,” said Janet Herold, U.S. Labor Department regional solicitor in San Francisco, in a statement. “The agency will spend time and resources to protect workers and prevent the intolerable and unacceptable from happening. The department will not allow Unicold or other employers to allow dangerous conditions that put workers in a potential death trap.”
Darryl Kawano, vice president and chief operating officer of Unicold, said Unicold reached an agreement with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration even though the company disputes the majority of the citations.
“(We) finally withdrew our notice of contest simply because the litigation expenses would exceed the penalties,” Kawano said. “We are disappointed to see what we believe to be a very misleading news release by OSHA given the fact that Unicold fully cooperated with federal and state officials two years ago and voluntarily implemented immediate improvements beyond what is required by law.
“While OSHA’s nearly one-month inspection was occurring, we undertook a number of immediate modifications to correct items based on OSHA’s observations, including installing new modern doors. And even though it took OSHA six months to issue citations after completing its inspection, Unicold had already begun to implement a comprehensive program of capital and safety improvements totaling more than $495,000.”
Unicold said it employs independent safety consultants to support its safety management program.
“We have regular employee safety training, site safety inspections, safety planning meetings and hold plant evacuation drills regularly,” Kawano said. “We believe our practices comply with the industry’s “good manufacturing practices. The safety and health of Unicold’s employees and tenants are always of paramount concern to us.”