One worker died earlier this month at Omni Recycling in...

One worker died earlier this month at Omni Recycling in West Babylon. Credit: Rick Kopstein

Four workplace deaths have now taken place in the past 25 years at a site run by Omni Recycling of Babylon, a private firm used by the town since the 1990s to sort through throwaway items left at the curb by local residents. Without doubt, that is four deaths too many.

Omni's latest tragedy happened May 8 when worker Marcos Bonilla, 50, of Westbury, was fatally struck by a payloader. Suffolk County police and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration are investigating the circumstances of this newest death. But clearly the safety oversight at Omni needs a comprehensive review. Working in this industry should not carry lethal consequences. 

In 2002, a U.S. Senate committee examining the high rate of workplace deaths among immigrants cited two young workers from El Salvador who died at the same Omni plant. Fredi Canales, 16, was killed in 1998 trying to clear garbage from a giant sorting machine. And in 2000, Gabriel Nunez, 20, fell into an unmarked manhole in the plant and died in its freezing toxic waters despite attempts by his brother and other workers to save him.

The late Sen. Edward Kennedy said at the hearing that the Omni incidents underlined the vulnerability of immigrant workers to unsafe conditions. "We know the cost,” said Kennedy. "All we have to do is ask the family of workers like Fredi Canales." 

But in 2007, tragedy struck again at Omni. Miguel Marquez, a 59-year-old immigrant from Ecuador, who worked the overnight shift hand-sorting metals and concrete from piles of debris, was killed by a payloader. Initial reports say Bonilla was killed in the same manner. 

Reacting to this latest death, Frank Torres, past president of the Long Island Hispanic Bar Association who represented Nunez's survivors, said most Long Islanders putting out their disposable plastic, metals and other waste to be recycled have no idea about the dangers faced by these workers. "They are cheap labor and they are desperate for work," Torres said. "Employers know they will do anything for low wages."

Omni did not return our calls for comment. Babylon Town Supervisor Richard Schaffer expressed "great concern" about Bonilla's death and acknowledged that work at Omni can be "very dangerous."

On Long Island, state officials say 53 businesses act as “recycling centers” for scrap metal and other types of waste, though only a few like Omni are large-scale vendors sorting through municipal garbage picked up at your curb. Our search found two separate deaths in 2004 and 2005 at other LI recycling facilities.

Who's to blame for this latest fatality, if anyone, has yet to be decided by authorities who fined Omni for violations related to the past three deaths. But as the nation debates how to handle the latest influx of new immigrants, we must ensure that whatever jobs they get here are safe, properly overseen, and do not wind up in death.

MEMBERS OF THE EDITORIAL BOARD are experienced journalists who offer reasoned opinions, based on facts, to encourage informed debate about the issues facing our community.

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