I applaud state government and Douglas County for filing charges against Depressurized Technologies Inc., in Minden, where one immigrant worker was killed and four others severely burned in a powerful explosion at the plant last September. It took nearly six months before state and county officials finally got around to filing felony charges against the owner of the company, Walter Gonzalez, of San Jose, Calif., who had already been fined $144,000 for "willful and serious violations" of state workplace safety laws.

Late last month, the state Attorney General's Office filed five felony charges against Gonzalez for allegedly failing to provide workers compensation insurance for his employees. Simultaneously, Douglas County charged the businessman with two felony counts of neglect and five misdemeanor counts of failing to maintain a safe workplace.

These charges represent a step forward in protecting workers -- many of them immigrants -- who handle explosives and other hazardous materials at manufacturing plants in Nevada. Many of us remember the 1998 explosion that killed four immigrant workers and injured six others at the Sierra Chemical Co. plant east of Reno. Although the company was fined $1 million dollars, no criminal charges were filed. And last year, one employee was killed and two others injured at the AeroTech model rocket factory in Las Vegas.

There have been several other near-misses in recent years and that was one of the reasons why Lyon County revoked the operating license of Advanced Specialty Gases, of Dayton, earlier this year. ASG had suspended operations in June 2000, after an explosion in its distillation processing room.

Workplace safety will be on the agenda at next year's session of the Nevada Legislature, thanks to Sen. Randolph Townsend, a Reno Republican. Lawmakers are taking a long-overdue look at companies that process hazardous materials. Earlier this month, Townsend presided at a meeting of a Legislative Commission subcommittee here in Carson.

"People are dumping all kinds of things here, and we don't even know about it," Townsend said. He agreed with Tom Stoneburner of the statewide Alliance for Workers Rights, who said the state needs to know what hazardous materials are coming into Nevada, how those materials are being processed and how they're regulated at federal, state and local levels.

In the case of Depressurized Technologies, witnesses said the company recycles aerosol cans by depressurizing them, removing the contents and recycling the materials and their containers. According to state and county officials, last September's explosion was caused by a spark that ignited "dangerous levels" of flammable gases present in the plant.

Company lawyer Noel Manoukian countered that the plant was run properly and asserted that employees had failed to take proper security precautions. Of course it all depends upon what you mean by "safety training," which sometimes means that a semi-literate, Spanish-speaking worker marks an "X" on a piece of paper that says (in English) that he's received such training.

One of the issues that arose in the Depressurized Technologies case was the question of who was going to pay the injured workers' medical expenses in the absence of workmen's comp. These expenses are expected to cost Nevada taxpayers more than $1 million dollars from the state's uninsured workers fund before it's all over.

Not only did the injured workers have to scramble to cover medical expenses, they were also evicted from their Gardnerville apartment in the ultimate indignity of this case. Recognizing their desperate plight, St. Gall's Catholic Church raised more than $25,000 for the workers and their families and found them another apartment.

I believe strongly in the need for tighter immigration controls in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks against New York and Washington. Nevertheless, if Nevada employers hire illegal immigrants, they have a legal and moral obligation to treat them like human beings.

"The willfulness with which this employer placed his employees at risk is staggering," said Matt Callister, an attorney representing the victims of the Minden explosion. At the recent legislative hearing, Tom Czehowski of Nevada's Occupational Health and Safety Enforcement Division said the workers "were actually taking a can, setting it on a spike and hitting the can with a rubber mallet" because the machinery that was supposed to do the job was broken. No wonder the state fined the Minden firm for "willful violations" of safety requirements.

In a related matter, Nevada Labor Commissioner Terry Johnson ruled in February that all workers -- even undocumented aliens -- must be paid prevailing wage rates on public works projects. Some unscrupulous employers hire illegals "off the payroll," paying them minimal wages in cash and without offering benefits of any kind.

As the Appeal observed in an editorial, "Johnson's ruling struck at the ... illegal practice by some companies of hiring immigrants at cheap wages, and then looking the other way," which happens all too often in Nevada, and even right here in Carson City.

So it's gratifying to see that state and county officials are finally taking their responsibilities to all Nevada residents seriously by enforcing health, safety and wage legislation. This is a legitimate role for government -- one that will make it even more pleasant, and much safer, to live and work in the Silver State.

"THE AMERICAN EMBASSY": This new Fox television network program is an insult to anyone who ever worked at an American embassy overseas, as I did for more than 20 years. I agree with the Wall Street Journal reviewer who called the show "one big self-involved saga of adolescent angst and amateur adventure D a world not so much of innocents as of idiots abroad." Forget about it!

Guy W. Farmer, a semi-retired journalist and former U.S. diplomat, resides in Carson City.


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