Feds: Immokalee farm worker died because employer did not follow work safety regulations

Posted | by Ian Pajer-Rogers |

Esteban Manuel Ernesto, a farm worker killed in an accident while picking chilis near Immokalee, may not have died if his employer had followed work safety regulations, a federal agency found.

The contractor, or crew leader, Jose Carmen Leon, ran Manuel over in February while he backed up his flatbed truck where workers dumped the chili they picked.

Manuel was crouching down picking peppers in Leon’s path, but the crew leader couldn’t see him in the truck mirrors. The vehicle had no beeping horn signaling it was in reverse, according to the Hendry County Sheriff’s Office report.

Leon exposed his workers to a recognized safety hazard by backing up without being able to see if anyone was in his way, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration concluded in a notification of penalty issued to Leon earlier this month.

To prevent that hazard, Leon could have installed a back-up alarm recognizable by the employees as a warning or utilized a spot person to perform a head count before moving the vehicle, the citation said. He could have also operated the truck just in the forward direction and provided employees with high visibility reflective vests or clothing.

“An employee’s first day on the job should not be the last day of their life,” Condell Eastmond, director of OSHA’s Fort Lauderdale Area Office, said in a statement.

Leon also was cited for not reporting Esteban Manuel’s death to OSHA within 8 hours as required, according to the notification.

The federal agency is fining Leon $6,900. The resolution can be contested. Leon declined to comment for this story.

In Mexico, Manuel’s live-in partner and mother of their three daughters, Florencia Medina, said she hopes the fine will prevent future accidents. She said she wants Leon to be punished.

“I want that justice,” she said. “It’s not fair that I lose my spouse overnight.”

Medina, who lives in the small town of El Barco, is trying to support her children, she said. She hasn’t received any compensation for Manuel’s death. She started to sell food in the street to get by.

“I’m struggling with the children,”, she said. “My girls are going to enter school now. I need money for the materials.... Sometimes we eat well, sometimes not, just chili.”

Medina’s attorney, Brent Probinsky, didn’t respond to phone calls for this story, but a few months ago he said an insurer was refusing to pay workers compensation because they didn’t consider Manuel an employee.

Manuel came from Mexico with a guestworker visa to work in the fields of Immokalee with plans to start saving to build a home in Mexico for his family and maybe college for his daughters, ages 2, 9 and 11. He also wanted to buy the older a laptop so she could do her schoolwork.

In February, the employer he worked for gave them a couple of weeks off, Medina said. So he decided to go and pick chili for Leon at Gulf Coast Farms in Hendry County-- for a few days.

But on Feb. 17, Manuel was run over by Leon’s truck and died shortly after at age 31.

Leon told deputies he advised everyone the truck was going to move, put the truck in reverse and then his wife told the victim to get of the way, according to the report.

Alvaro Martinez, Manuel’s cousin, who was working with him that day, said he believed only those who were on the drivers side of the truck were warned. Manuel was on the other side.

Jeanette Smith, director of Interfaith Worker Justice of South Florida, said the fine won’t help the family. She added that if Leon couldn’t afford it and the insurer didn’t pay compensation to the family, the owner of the farm where the accident happened should still be liable. Gulf Coast Farms owners Christopher Lee and Joshua Thompson didn’t respond to phone calls and voice messages seeking comment.

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