Forklift death investigation: problems at produce warehouse

| 8/22/2007

Managers at a Dole Food Company plant where a forklift crushed a trucker in January were obsessed with efficiency numbers and supervisors rarely watched forklifts at the loading dock, one Dole employee told Arizona state investigators.

The Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health recently concluded a six-month investigation into the death of trucker Sheila Ross, who was killed on Jan. 27 at the Dole Food Company plant in Yuma, AZ. Investigators believe Ross – a team driver from McCloud, OK, was struck by a forklift and smashed between pallets of fresh lettuce being loaded into a trailer as she walked from her truck to the Dole dispatch office in Yuma, AZ, on Jan. 27.

Her body was found three days later as the trailer was unloaded at a Hy-Vee Distribution Center in Chariton, IA.

Within days, Yuma Police declared the fatality an accident.

This week, Land Line obtained a copy of the investigation that took Arizona labor officials six months to complete.

Investigators compiled a number of facts, including:

  • Forklift operators at the Dole warehouse earn an hourly wage and also earn money based on how much freight the group loads every seven days;
  • Jose Parra – the Dole forklift operator that allegedly pushed Ross into a trailer – was working on a safety license that had expired six months before the accident;
  • Authorities in Iowa cited a state records law and denied to hand over their investigation and Sheila Ross’ autopsy to Arizona state officials;
  • Since Ross’ death, Dole has amended policies for forklift operators on the loading docks and is now emphasizing horn honking, slow handling and immediate reports following accidents or near misses with truck drivers on the docks; and
  • Irma Ordunez, who worked as a dispatcher for seven years at Dole, told investigators that at least one supervisor pushed forklift operators and was concerned with budget issues and efficiency, not safety. “Supervisors should be on the dock at all times overseeing the operation – not doing paperwork,” Ordunez told them. “I would like less pressure!”

Jose Parra, the forklift driver whose machine hit Ross, was suspended from work for three days in 2002 after bumping into another forklift on the warehouse floor. Parra’s annual training license had lapsed, according to the investigation.

Ross was a team driver was with her husband, Dane Ross.

Land Line previously reported that Dole was fined $9,000 for violating two of its company policies, including forklift operators failing to slow down and signal horns while entering intersections in the warehouse and for failing to enforce its rules for pedestrian traffic by outsiders walking inside the warehouse. The investigation did not directly blame Dole for Sheila Ross’ death.

Also, Dole officials couldn’t produce security tape of the warehouse at the time of Sheila Ross’ death and told investigators that the video recording system showing the loading dock wasn’t working.

Yuma police immediately interviewed Dane Ross and ruled out foul play in connection to her death and noted that the husband frantically searched trucks and trailers at the warehouse and persuaded Dole dispatchers to call drivers who’d left the warehouse to have them check their loads.

Investigators had difficulty learning the exact details of how Ross died, Darin Perkins, director of the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health, told Land Line in July.

“We’re kind of left with some unanswered questions,” Perkins said.

Dole hasn’t responded to phone calls from Land Line seeking comment.

Dane Ross has filed a civil lawsuit against defendants Dole Foods and Parra, claiming Sheila Ross died because the produce giant was negligent.

As of Wednesday, court records indicate that Dane Ross and his attorneys were continuing settlement discussions that would likely end the lawsuit before an anticipated jury trial in U.S. District Court would begin next year.

A recent Web poll at revealed that 52 percent of respondents felt they were most likely to be injured at the shipper/receiver dock, the highest tally among categories such as on the road, truck stops and rest areas.

– By Charlie Morasch, staff writer