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Feds Raid Houston Heights Tortilla Plant, Cite It for 25 OSHA Violations

Exposed live wires. Cutting tools without safety guards. Locked emergency exit doors. Unprotected ceiling fans looming seven feet above the floor.  

Those are only a handful of the 25 occupational safety violations Department of Labor investigators say they found at La Espiga de Oro tortilla plant in Houston Heights in mid-June. The feds announced Monday that the company, which has operated in the northwest Houston neighborhood since 1977, faces $106,000 in penalties.

Department of Labor spokesman Juan Rodríguez said a complaint from an employee prompted the feds to inspect the factory in June. The department's Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Monday cited La Espiga de Oro for 21 serious and four "other-than-serious" violations.

The violations, meticulously detailed in the 34-page citation, read like a laundry list of safety flaws: storage racks at risk of collapsing, perpetually wet and slippery floors, elevated platforms without railings, a fire hazard, various electrical hazards and an emergency exit sign pointed in the wrong direction.

Steve Devine, an OSHA assistant director in Houston, said in a statement that conditions at the plant put workers in grave danger.

“A worker exposed to machines without proper guards can lose a finger, a limb or their life,” Devine said. With more than two dozen serious violations, it’s clear this company needs to take its employees’ safety far more seriously.”

The feds may have a hard time determining how many workers have been hurt as a result of the alleged violations — OSHA also cited La Espiga de Oro for failing to create an annual log of injuries and illnesses sustained on the job, as required by law.

A woman who answered the phone at La Espiga de Oro on Monday afternoon said co-owner Alfredo Lira was out. Half an hour later, Larry Carbo, an attorney who represents the company, called the Houston Press to say he had just learned of the allegations and had no comment. Rodríguez, the labor department spokesman, said La Espiga de Oro has yet to respond to the citation.

On Monday evening, workers loaded a truck in the loading dock of the factory, which abuts busy North Shepherd Drive and largely residential 15th Street. Window fans blew air into the humid August night, and business appeared to be running as usual.

The OSHA inspection was not the first time La Espiga de Oro caught the attention of federal authorities. Last summer, Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents raided the factory and arrested ten employees on suspicion of being in the United States illegally. Prosecutors in January charged owners Alfredo Lira and his wife, Lydia Botello Lira, for knowingly hiring undocumented workers. 
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Zach Despart is the managing editor of the Houston Press and oversees the news and music verticals.
Contact: Zach Despart