OSHA claims Ashley Furniture, the nation’s largest furniture retailer, exposed employees to amputations and other hazards. The agency says that during a 36-month period, 4,500 employees at Ashley Furniture Industries Inc., in Arcadia, Wisc., experienced more than 1,000 work-related injuries.
In one case, a worker became a statistic when he lost three fingers in July 2014 while operating what the agency called a "dangerous" woodworking machine without required guards and lockout/tagout procedures in place. Of the injuries recorded, more than 100 were caused by similar circumstances, according to OSHA.
After that incident, OSHA inspected the facility. Investigators from OSHA identified 12 alleged willful, 12 repeated and 14 serious safety violations at Ashley Furniture’s Arcadia location, carrying a total of $1,766,000 in penalties. The company also has been placed in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program for failure to address these safety hazards. OSHA previously cited the Arcadia facility in 2014 after an employee suffered a partial finger amputation.
“Ashley Furniture has created a culture that values production and profit over worker safety, and employees are paying the price,” said U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. “Safety and profits are not an ‘either, or’ proposition. Successful companies across this nation have both.”
In a statement, the company insisted it "strongly disputes the allegations issued [by OSHA] regarding the company’s safety operations in its Arcadia, Wisconsin facility. The company strongly disagrees with each and every one of the agency’s assertions and believes the proposed penalties are grossly inappropriate and overzealous."
“At Ashley, each employee’s safety and well-being is an absolute priority,” said Steve Ziegeweid, director of health and safety for the company. “In the past five years, Ashley has lowered our incident rate by 14 percent and our ‘days away, restricted or transferred’ rate by 28 percent – demonstrating our commitment to real and tangible improvements in safety across our company.”
Dr. David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor of occupational safety and health, commented that Ashley Furniture “intentionally and willfully disregarded OSHA standards and its own corporate safety manuals to encourage workers to increase productivity and meet deadlines.”
The statement from Ashley said the company trains its employees to follow applicable lockout/tagout procedures when maintaining or repairing certain equipment, which requires machines to be completely disabled while certain activities are performed. The company also insisted it trains employees to follow applicable safeguards for “minor" servicing of equipment – as provided by established rules and regulations – such has changing drill bits and other routine operations. Ashley disagrees with inspectors’ conclusions regarding the application of the appropriate procedures, specifically, when OSHA's lockout/tagout standard applies and when "minor servicing rules: apply.
Ashley's insistence that employees are trained and that the company follows OSHA standards apparently isn't sitting well with Michaels, who commented, "The company apparently blamed the victims for their own injuries, but there is clear evidence that injuries were caused by the unsafe conditions created by the company. OSHA is committed to making sure that the total disregard Ashley Furniture has shown to safety stops here and now.”
Forbes lists Ashley Furniture Industries, a furniture manufacturer with worldwide distribution, as the 117th largest private company in America. With annual revenue of $3.85 billion as of October 2014, the company employs about 20,000 workers at 30 locations nationally. The Arcadia plant also is the largest employer in Wisconsin’s rural Trempealeau County, with a population of about 30,000.
The 12 alleged willful and 12 alleged repeated violations were cited after OSHA found that the company did not take the necessary steps to protect its workers from being injured by moving machine parts. It did not prevent machines from unintentionally starting when workers were performing tooling and blade changes on woodworking machinery, and also failed to provide adequate safety mechanisms to prevent contact with those moving parts. These types of violations are among the most frequently cited by OSHA and often result in death or permanent disability.
A willful violation is one committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law’s requirement, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health. OSHA issues repeated violations if an employer previously was cited for the same or a similar violation of any standard, regulation, rule or order at any other facility in federal enforcement states within the last five years.
OSHA also cited Ashley Furniture Industries for 14 alleged serious violations, including not training workers on safety procedures and hazards present when servicing machinery; not providing adequate drenching facilities for workers exposed to corrosive materials; three electrical safety violations; and not equipping some of its machines with readily accessible emergency stop buttons.
An OSHA violation is serious if death or serious physical harm can result from a hazard an employer knew or should have known exists.
Ashley Furniture Industries Inc. has had 33 federal OSHA inspections and 23 state plan inspections since 1982. In its 33 previous inspections, OSHA issued citations for 96 serious, four repeat and 38 other-than-serious violations. Four inspections were initiated as a result of finger amputations, with Arcadia’s 2014 incident being the most recent.
OSHA made it a point to name Ashley Furniture’s workers’ compensation carrier in its news release. Twin City Fire Insurance Co., part of the Hartford Insurance Group, carries the company’s workers’ compensation coverage. Normally, insurance carriers work with customers to ensure safe workplaces, as it is in the best financial interest of everyone involved to reduce injuries, illnesses and fatalities.
The company has 15 business days from receipt of its citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director or contest the findings before the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
In its statement, the company made it clear it will contest the citations, noting they are "allegations" and not "a finding of fact," adding that it "strongly disagrees with each and every opinion of the agency, and looks forward to the opportunity to present our evidence in the proper setting."
According to statistics provided by the company, Ashley reported about 880 individual cases of all injuries and illnesses during the three years from 2012 to 2014 at its Arcadia facility. According to Ashley, fewer than one-in-four of these cases required time away from work. The company said the most common injury were muscle strains and sprains, and the company has an ongoing ergonomics program.
Employees logged more than 22.5 million working hours in Arcadia during the last three years, and the company claims it has lowered its incident rate by 14 percent and its “days away, restricted or transferred”rate by 28 percent.