Federal workplace safety regulators on Monday slapped Ashley Furniture Industries with $1.76 million in penalties after documenting 1,037 worker injuries due to allegedly unsafe conditions or equipment at the company’s Arcadia plant over the past three years.
The allegations were categorically denied by Ashley.
Investigators from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said they identified 38 safety violations at the furniture-making factory 170 miles northwest of Madison that contributed to the injuries suffered by 20 percent of its workforce. Classified as willful, repeated or serious, the alleged violations carry fines of $1,766,000.
The injuries included one in July 2014 that prompted the OSHA inspection, in which a man lost three fingers while operating what regulators in a statement Monday called “a dangerous woodworking machine without required safety mechanisms.” More than 100 of the injuries involved similar machinery, as Ashley Furniture threw out federal standards and its own corporate safety manuals in pursuit of speed and profits, OSHA said.
“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,” said David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor of occupational safety and health. “OSHA is committed to making sure that the total disregard Ashley Furniture has shown to safety stops here and now.”
The Arcadia-based company, described by OSHA as the country’s largest furniture retailer and Trempealeau County’s largest employer, emphatically disagreed with “each and every one” of OSHA’s charges and called the proposed penalties “grossly inappropriate and overzealous” in a statement issued by spokesman Jason Lockington.
Ashley also maintained OSHA’s announcement Monday was “not a finding of fact,” but rather “only an allegation,” and said it would provide evidence disputing all the charges “in the proper legal setting.”
OSHA said the company had 15 business days to comply, request an informal conference with an OSHA area director or contest the findings with the independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
A State Journal review of online OSHA records shows Ashley Furniture has paid $20,344 in fines for 22 health and safety violations classified as “serious” or “other” in eight other OSHA cases filed at Ashley locations around the country over the past five years, including a $2,000 fine for a safety violation in January at the Arcadia plant involving an amputation. Many of those eight cases were resolved after formal or informal settlements or other adjustments reduced the number of violations and fine amounts originally charged by OSHA.
But the action announced Monday goes far beyond the scope of the earlier cases, with far more serious allegations of wrongdoing in addition to the much larger financial penalty being sought. For example, none of the previous violations was classified as willful or repeated.
The current alleged violations include not training workers on safety procedures and lacking adequate drenching facilities for workers exposed to corrosive materials. OSHA also alleges the company didn’t take the necessary steps to protect workers from being injured by moving machine parts, and did not prevent woodworking machines from unintentionally starting when workers performed tooling and blade changes.
Some machines also were not equipped with readily accessible emergency stop buttons, according to OSHA.
Ashley in a statement countered that employee safety was an “absolute priority” and said it had lowered its incident rate by 14 percent and its rate of days away, restricted or transferred by 28 percent in the past five years.
According to Lockington, the company has about 4,750 employees in Wisconsin. Thirteen Ashley Furniture HomeStores operate in Wisconsin, including seven corporate stores and six that are independently owned and operated. Ashley also has additional manufacturing facilities in Independence and Whitehall, both near Arcadia.
With annual revenues of $3.85 billion last year, Ashley employs about 20,000 workers at 30 locations nationally, OSHA said. Forbes listed Ashley as the 117th-largest private company in the U.S.