The U.S. Labor Department socked Ashley Furniture with one of the largest safety fines in history Monday after alleging repeated safety violations over 36 months that caused more than 1,000 worker injuries, including several amputated fingers.
The $1.77 million fine resulted from an Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) inspection last year of Ashley’s Arcadia, Wis., factory. Inspectors “identified 12 willful, 12 repeated and 14 serious safety violations.” Those are in addition to violations found during previous visits, U.S. Labor Department Assistant Secretary David Michaels told the Star Tribune on Monday.
“We rarely issue a fine that is more than $1 million,” Michaels said. “Having 1,000 work injuries in three years is proof positive that safety in this plant needs tremendous improvement.”
All the injuries were serious and “required more than first aid,” he said.
Ashley said in a statement that it “strongly disputes” OSHA’s findings.
“The company strongly disagrees with each and every one of the agency’s assertions and believes the proposed penalties are grossly inappropriate and overzealous,” the statement said. “To clarify, OSHA’s announcement is not a finding of fact, but rather only an allegation.”
Ashley Director of Health and Safety Steve Ziegeweid said that “safety and well-being is an absolute priority” and that Ashley is committed to safety improvements. He noted that the company lowered its accident rate by 14 percent over five years.
The massive facility, which sits 135 miles southeast of Minneapolis, employs 4,500 workers and has now been placed in the Severe Violator Enforcement Program for failure to address the cited safety hazards.
Timothy Kobernat, a retired OSHA district supervisor who runs his own safety consulting business in Eau Claire, Wis., said the fine “is the largest I have ever heard of in Wisconsin. Normally a $200,000 fine is a big deal around here. So this citation is big, even for a $3 billion company.”
OSHA cited the Arcadia facility after one employee suffered a partial finger amputation. In July, another employee lost three fingers on a woodworking machine that did not have its safety guards employed. Five other employees suffered amputations over three and a half years, department officials said.
The government also cited Ashley for other injuries that occurred because of lack of training or carelessness. For example, the company failed to safeguard against woodworking machines unintentionally starting when workers were making tool and blade changes, the OSHA report said.
OSHA officials had visited the Arcadia plant several times and kept finding the same problems of missing machine guards and workers pushed to the limit, said Michaels of the Department of Labor.
Ashley “intentionally disregarded OSHA standards and its own corporate safety policies by pushing workers to increase production and meet deadlines” at the expense of safety, he said.
Michaels also accused the company of “blaming the victims for their own injuries because it was the employees’ fingers that were stuck in the machines. But, in reality, there is clear evidence that injuries were caused by the unsafe conditions created by the company.”
Ashley Furniture, privately held with about 20,000 workers, 30 locations and $3.8 billion in revenue, has 15 business days to formally contest OSHA’s ruling and the $1.77 million fine.
If done, the formal appeal and evidence on both sides of the case would be presented to the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, said Labor spokeswoman Rhonda Burke.
A final decision or potential settlements in cases such as these can take a year or more to be resolved, she said.