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Washington seafood company fined following COVID death

Courtesy of the office of Washington Governor Jay Inslee
A graphic from the state of Washington depicts different forms of face coverings. A Pierce County fish processing plant has been fined for not complying with the state's workplace mask mandate, resulting in the death of an employee from COVID last year.

A Sumner, Washington seafood company that makes imitation crab and other products has been fined $56,000 in connection with a 2021 COVID outbreak that left one employee dead.

The Department of Labor and Industries (L&I) announced the fine against Shining Ocean Inc. on Monday.

According to L&I, the employee, a 65-year-old man, died after contracting COVID at a company staff meeting on November 4, 2021. During the meeting, the investigation found most of the 23 people in attendance did not wear masks. Sixteen workers contracted COVID, including the worker who later died.

“This happened when COVID rates and hospitalizations were high and the requirement to wear masks was still in place,” said Craig Blackwood, assistant director of L&I, in a statement. “Management got complacent about workplace safety, and it cost a worker his life.”

L&I said Shining Ocean employees told investigators that the company's president had indicated to them it was a matter of personal choice whether to wear a mask. The company, reportedly, also didn't have a process in place at the time for verifying worker vaccination status.

In May 2021, L&I issued updated workplace masking guidelines.

Under those rules, fully vaccinated employees were not required to wear masks. However, masks were still mandated for unvaccinated employees.

Shining Ocean has paid the fine in full, according to L&I. Because the violation is classified as "willful serious," L&I said the company will face heightened scrutiny, including mandatory follow-up inspections, under the agency's severe violator program.

According to Shining Ocean's website, the company was founded in Seattle in 1985 and was "an early pioneer of the American surimi seafood industry." Surimi is fish-based paste or gel-like substitute for real lobster or crab. An online catalog of Shining Ocean's products include natural lobster flake, seafood shrimp salad and crab shred.

A call to the company was not immediately returned Monday afternoon.

This is just the latest in a series of COVID-related workplace safety fines assessed by L&I in recent months.

Last August, L&I reached a $2 million settlement with Gebbers Farms Operations in Brewster, Washington after two farmworkers died from COVID-19 in 2020. A pair of inspections found 24 "egregious willful" violations, including unsafe sleeping conditions. Under the settlement, one of the largest in state history, Gebbers agreed to invest the $2 million in health, safety and housing upgrades, according to an L&I press releaseat the time.

Last November, a Longview paper mill was fined $140,000 following a COVID outbreak that sickened more than a dozen employees, resulting in two hospitalizations and one worker death.

In December, the Washington Department of Corrections was fined $60,000 for not enforcing mask and social distancing rules at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen.

In February of this year, L&I fined three businesses more than $250,000 following a COVID outbreak in distribution warehouse in Centralia that sickened 250 workers.

L&I said all of those fines are currently under appeal. However, in February one of the warehouse companies in Centralia paid a $70,000 fine following an unsuccessful appeal.