Life & a Cheap Death at Wal-Mart

Ten months ago, Sprawl-Busters first reported the death of a Brazilian immigrant worker during a botched renovation job by an unlicensed crew inside a Wal-Mart in Massachusetts.

Romulo de Oliveira Santos died at the age of 47 on the floor of a Wal-Mart vision center in Walpole, Massachusetts. His muscles were charred, his skin was coagulated, and one-fifth of his body suffered second and third degree burns. There were bruises and cuts on his face, back, arms and hands. According to an autopsy, Santos had been electrocuted.

This week, the Boston Globe picked up the Santos story in its Business section, noting a similar job site injury and death at Wal-Mart elsewhere in the country.

On the night of September 8, 2008, Santos was working as part of an inexperienced, unsupervised subcontract crew on a remodeling project at Wal-Mart store #2103 on Providence Highway in Walpole. There was no properly licensed supervisor watching over crew members from Italo Masonries, for whom Santos worked.

Italo had never done demolition work before. Wal-Mart hired a general contractor to oversee the reconstruction of its Vision Center, and that contractor has subbed out the interior demolition to Italo. Santos was working without licensed supervision.

In 2000, Santos came to America on a work visa to pursue a dream. He wanted to become an electronic technician. Santos enrolled in ESL classes to learn English, and began working on a cleaning crew. Santos would send some of his earnings back to the city of Volta Redonda, Brazil, where his family lived. He was 39 years old when he first entered the U.S. Eight years later, he was inside the Walpole Wal-Mart working a late hour shift -- his last.

The construction scene inside the Vision Center was a tangle of unlabeled wires and cords. Wal-Mart had insisted that the remodeling job would proceed while the store remained open. On Santos' last night, the general contractor, electrical contractor, and Italo Masonry all left no supervisors at the site. But several light circuits were left on, because the renovations could be done quicker and easier by leaving the area "hot."

One junction box at the top of a wall was left "hot." Santos arrived at the site just before 10:30 pm -- a time when most Wal-Mart shoppers were home in bed. Santos and his coworkers were not warned that a 227-volt circuit powering the overhead lights in the Vision Center had been left live. Santos had no reason to expect that wires behind the walls were hot. It was normal practice that live wires would be clearly marked and labeled, to avoid lethal danger.

One of Santos' coworkers began tearing down a wall that had been marked for demolition. The crew member, wielding a reciprocating saw, cut through the live wire at the top of the wall. The lights went out, leaving the whole crew in the darkened Vision Center. The crew began to exit the site, when Santos came in contact with the live wire.

According to witnesses at the scene, Santos moaned in pain, and fell to the floor in between a scissors lift and the wall. A crew member rushed to his side, but Santos died within minutes -- badly burned from the trauma.

The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) issued Wal-Mart an immediate stop work order, and listed numerous violations of federal safety regulations. "Workers were exposed to hazards of arc-flash and arc blast while working on energized parts of the circuit breaker panels without proper personal protective equipment," OSHA wrote. "Employees were exposed to electric shock hazards while performing . . . tasks without de-energizing the circuits."

Attorney Brian A. Joyce of the Joyce Law Group, the firm that is handling a civil lawsuit against Wal-Mart on behalf of the Santos family, says that Romulo's death could have been avoided if Wal-Mart had held its general contractor to its contractual obligation to permit only properly licensed and qualified subcontractors to demolish the Vision Center. Joyce notes that the general contractor has a rap sheet with OSHA for hiring unlicensed contractors.

"Wal-Mart's callous indifference to the safety of construction workers at the Walpole store is not an isolated incident," Joyce told Sprawl-Busters. Similar construction-related deaths have occurred in Texas, Nebraska, and Indiana. OSHA has cited Wal-Mart in numerous other cases for its negligence in protecting workers.

"In its ruthless quest to cut prices and maximize profits," Joyce charges, "Wal-Mart allows cutting corners, especially when it comes to safety, and is willing to risk the lives of construction workers to save on costs. When the sadly predictable accidents occur, Wal-Mart remorselessly opposes attempts by the surviving family members to discover what happened, and to seek justice for their lost loved ones."

The family of Romulo de Oliveira Santos has waited for almost three and a half years to see justice done in this case. The sudden death of their son who traveled to America was tragic enough -- but Wal-Mart's response since the accident has made the family's ordeal even harder to accept. On February 14, 2011, the Boston law firm hired by Wal-Mart acknowledged in a letter to the Joyce law firm that "an offer of $25,000 was made" to the Santos family by the retailer and its general contractor as compensation for Santos' death. That was one year ago. There has been no movement by Wal-Mart since then.

Attorney Joyce says Wal-Mart's financial offer is a slap in the face to the Santos family: "If Mr. Santos -- who was in excellent health when this tragedy occurred -- had worked until his retirement age, he could have had another $1 million in salary alone. Apparently $25,000 is the value that Wal-Mart puts on this man's life."

An everyday low price for a life -- from the company that made its fortune on cheap imported products -- like the labor of Romulo de Oliveira Santos.

Al Norman is the founder of Sprawl-Busters. For almost twenty years he has been helping community groups defend themselves against big box development. His most recent book is The Case Against Wal-Mart.