LIHU’E—The Hawai’i division of the Occupational Safety and Health
Administration began an investigation Monday into the disappearance of Amfac
sugar worker Davis Cortez Jr.
Division chief Jennifer Shishido said OSHA is
looking into an “event.” It would be premature, she said, to label the inquiry
as an accident investigation or anything else. “We have to determine first what
happened. We haven’t ruled out anything yet.”
And based on Shishido’s
experience, just about anything can turn up in the course of an investigation.
“There have been numerous cases where we’ve assumed that it was an
accident and it turns out it was a criminal case,” she said. “And sometimes
it’s the opposite.”
OSHA investigated an industrial accident on Maui
involving a backhoe. After interviews were conducted, it was discovered that
the backhoe driver had put the bucket on another worker’s head deliberately and
murdered him. Another time, the so-called accident turned out to be a
Davis Cortez Jr. disappeared on April 15 two hours into his night
shift at the Amfac processing plant in Lihu’e. His car, car keys and street
clothes were found at the plant, but police have not been able to link his
disappearance to anything that might have happened at the plant. “There is no
body,” Shishido said.
She anticipates the investigation will take at least
six weeks and there is no guarantee it will solve the mystery surrounding
Cortez’ disappearance. The investigation will include site inspections,
employer conferences and confidential employee interviews.
Even though the
Kaua’i Police Department investigation is still open, Shishido said OSHA could
not wait any longer to jump in.
“If we wait too long then everything
becomes too cold,” she said. “People start their versions of what happened, and
the freshness of their information becomes altered as they re-tell and hear
There are already at least 16 different versions circulating about
the fate of Cortez, she said.
Did he fall into the crusher? Was he pushed
in? Were there mysterious strangers on site spotted talking to Cortez who could
have spirited him away? Did he deliberately disappear?
KPD Chief George
Freitas said police are now focusing their efforts on trying to find the
sources of many of those rumors.
“We have some speculation from different
people that there was foul play, so our detectives have been actively trying to
locate people who claim to have information about foul play and seeing if any
of them have first hand information.”
Even with all the stories, Shishido
said that people might never know what really happened to Cortez that
If OSHA cannot prove that an accident took place, she said, then the
inspector will go home. Case closed.
But if OSHA concludes that the Cortez
case was an accident, then the agency will determine whether there were any
violations of the occupational safety health law and standards related to the
“We can issue penalties of up to $70,000 per occurrence,” she
said. “So it can be pretty stiff.”
Investigators will be looking at safety
devices around the cane-crushing machine to see if they may have
“The only time that someone would normally be putting their hands
in or arms or bodies or parts close to it would be where they are maintaining
it, they are freeing up a jam or fixing it, Shishido said.
By law, she
said, there must be a lock out/tag out procedure (called a LOTO) in place that
insures the machine will not be functional during maintenance.
to be a means where the employee who is going to be working on it either tags
out the start mechanism or goes to the circuit breaker box and pushes that out
of commission and puts a lock on it so nobody can start it up while they are
working on it. That’s what the law requires.”
Shishido said the inspector
may be looking to see what kind of training Cortez received on maintaining the
crushing machine, and what procedures were in place “associated with ensuring
that the worker and supervisor and the equipment were able to do what was
necessary at the time.”
If the inspector finds that violations of safety
laws did occur, then the division can cite $7,000 per item.
But if there is
evidence that the employer knew or should have known of the hazards and did
nothing, then the violation fee increases potentially tenfold.
train an employee could be $70,000,” she said. “Failure to insure equipment was
maintained could be another $70,000. Failure to clean up after a certain
process could be another. So there could be multiple items.”
investigation, the inspector can also issue citations for any other unrelated
serious hazards found on site that are brought to his attention.
Lihu’e Plantation, which is now Amfac Sugar, underwent a planned
Eighteen violations were found, resulting in a penalty of
$1,260. The company’s sugar refining plant also was cited for six
Violations included: Machine guarding to protect the operator
and others in the area was lacking (the report did not specify which machine at
the plant this referred to); railings not able to withstand 200 pounds;
compressed gas cylinders stored inside buildings were not upright and not 20
feet away from other combustible materials.
The company also was cited for
failure to have a training program to instruct employees of safe work
practices. A follow-up inspection two months later resulted in no
The island’s other sugar company, Gay & Robinson, submitted
to an OSHA inspection in 1998. Seven violations were noted.
that even if OSHA cannot prove violations took place, the agency still has the
power of information.
“Even if we cannot sustain a violation, if we can get
the word out that these things can happen, we can educate people to avoid such
occurrences again in the future. That’s a powerful tool also.”