Widow of Menzies employee who died in LAX tug accident says her husband had expressed concerns about conditions

A white tarp covers the body of a man who died Friday at LAX. Photo: Police source.

A white tarp covers the body of a man who died in February at LAX. Photo: Police source.

Cesar Valenzuela, the man who died in February at LAX in a one-tug accident, had expressed concerns about working conditions on the ramp, his widow said in letter to the editor of our newspaper.

As I reported last week, Valenzuela, 51, was not wearing his seatbelt when he fell out of his tug in an early morning accident. Valenzuela worked for Menzies Aviation, a company that provides contracted workers for airlines at LAX and other airports.

The letter faulted me, the reporter, for not providing enough context about why Valenzuela might not have been wearing a seatbelt. The letter was sent to the newspaper by a labor union, the SEIU-USWW. The union does not represent Menzies workers, but does represent other employees at LAX.

“Over the years working for Menzies, he expressed a lot of concerns about dangers he faced at work,” his widow Ulbita Ramirez wrote. “Cesar talked about seat belts on many of the tugs being broken or tied underneath the seat so workers could not use them and that he felt pressure to work faster than he thought was safe, because Menzies provided fewer workers than the airlines required, and he was afraid to fall behind.”

I asked Menzies spokeswoman Maya Pogoda last week about the allegations made by Ramirez. She said she had not immediate comment. I will update this post if the company sends a response.

The letter to the editor also took issue with the fact that the company told me Valenzuela had not been wearing his seatbelt when he died.

“It is unjust that the company would seek to smear Cesar’s name before the investigation into his death has been completed and made public,” Ulbita Ramirez wrote in a letter to the editor. “Menzies is blaming my husband, but all I can think about is whether he would still be here if the company had created a safer workplace.”

In response, Pogoda said casting blame was not the company’s intent. She noted that I had asked her if Valenzuela had been wearing a seatbelt and she answered the question. “Obviously, we weren’t seeking to blame anyone for this tragic accident, but just answered a question you asked,” she wrote in an email.

Cal Osha is investigating the incident.

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Why driving an airport tug can be a dangerous job

Baggage tugs, like this one at Kuching International Airport in Malaysia, can be hazardous to drive. Photo: Simon_Sees, via Creative Commons.

Baggage tugs, like this one at Kuching International Airport in Malaysia, can be hazardous to drive. Photo: Simon_Sees, via Creative Commons.

The baggage tractor driver at Los Angeles International Airport who died in February, apparently after falling out of his tug, was not wearing his seatbelt, I reported in today’s newspaper. This was a violation of company policy and federal guidelines.

My story was less about the incident in which Menzies Aviation employee Cesar Valenzuela died, and more about the overall difficulty in keeping tug drivers safe. Two drivers — one current and one former –told me airlines and contractors are constantly reminding workers to wear their seltbelts. Most do, the workers told me, but some do not.

There is also the issue of distracted driving. One ramp worker, who asked not to be identified for fear of getting in trouble, said this:

“I see some guys out there wearing earbuds listening to music, which is mental distraction, plus it obviously limits your ability to hear if a plane is nearby, another vehicle is honking, or if a co-worker is yelling for your attention.

“One guy with earbuds drove across the path of a plane that was pulling into the gate, forcing the plane to brake hard. That could have been catastrophic. My whole feeling behind that is if you get into a wreck or hurt yourself while not following the rules, it’s your own fault.”

While reporting this story, I learned that LAX had two other tug accidents during a two-month period in fall 2013. Here’s a summary of an Oct. 15 incident from an airport report:

“At Terminal 3, Gate 35, a tug driver lost control of and fell of his tug. Then (the tug) continued to travel, colliding with a cargo pallet and mobile bag belt before penetrating the wall adjoining a T-3 Ramp office. No injuries were reported.”

And here’s a report from a less serious Dec. 2 incident:

“…An American Airlines employee (was) injured by a tug. Employee denied medical treatment by LAFD and stated that he would go to American Airlines assigned clinic. Injury report was taken by (airport police.)

These problems are not unique to LAX. In 2012, after a Delta employee in Atlanta was ejected from a tug and died, the airline reached a settlement with Osha to improve its safety program. “OSHA cited Delta for violating 29 Code of Federal Regulations 1910.132, which requires employers to provide employees with personal protective equipment, including – in this case – seat belts,” Osha said in a press release.

After the settlement, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution obtained a Delta memo that said the airline had been averaging 14 tug ejections per year, about half of which were resulting in serious injury.

As far as the LAX incident in February, a spokeswoman for Menzies told me the company began its seatbelt policy in January 2013.

“Menzies seat-belt policy is quite simple,” spokeswoman Maya Pogoda. “Anytime a Menzies employee leaves the gate area, he or she is required to wear their seat belt.”


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A quick primer on LAX airfield driving

Can you guess who has the right of way here?

Can you guess who has the right of way here? Photos by your blogger.

What does it take to drive on the service roads of Los Angeles International Airport?

I recently took a tour of the airport with Los Angeles World Airports police chief Patrick Gannon, who taught me some of the tricks of the trade. After he took the job in late 2012, Gannon had to take eight hours of airport driving training. “You learn what to pay attention to,” he said.

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