Ashley Furniture, the nation’s largest retailer of home furnishings, has agreed to a $1.75 million settlement with the U.S. Department of Labor to protect its employees from machine hazards after more than 1,000 workers suffered serious injuries in recent years.
The fines are among the largest levied by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which said that the Arcadia, Wis.-based company repeatedly failed to properly safeguard its workers, whose injuries “went beyond First Aid.” A number of employees lost fingers operating furniture-making machines at the company’s headquarters plant. OSHA said egregious violations also occurred at facilities in Whitehall, Wis., Ecru and Ripley, Miss., and in Pennsylvania.
The two-year settlement agreement resolves numerous alleged violations that Ashley officials have long contended were “outrageous” and said they would vigorously challenge. The company had been facing more than $2.5 million in proposed fines.
“With this settlement, Ashley Furniture is taking important steps to change its culture, invest in its employees and work with OSHA to make significant changes to protect the safety and health of workers,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez said in a statement.
Ken Atha, who leads OSHA’s regional office in Chicago, commended Ashley Furniture for going “above and beyond” the requirement to resolve issues at the inspected plants. Instead, the company, which has 22,000 workers at 30 locations, agreed to appoint a vice president for safety to manage a corporate-wide program to prevent injuries to its machine operators and other employees.
Ashley Furniture will implement training and safety measures to protect employees and agreed to submit status reports to OSHA annually.
“The focus should be on the significant impact this corporate settlement agreement will have,” Atha said in an interview. “Employees nationwide at Ashley Furniture will get these protections.”
Ashley Furniture declined to make executives available for comment.
The company, listed by Forbes magazine as the 105th-largest private company in America, issued a statement saying: “Safety is a key value and something that we at Ashley take very seriously. In the last five years, we have spent over $67 million on modern manufacturing equipment and safety initiatives with the goal of improving the working environment for our employees.”
The statement added that Ashley “worked cooperatively with OSHA and built a productive relationship. The resolution reached provides benefits to Ashley and its employees and will allow us to constructively move forward while focusing on our employees and the furniture business.”
During OSHA’s investigation, which began early last year, Ashley officials consistently denied there were problems.
In the first of three high-profile sanctions, the federal government’s top safety agency socked the furniture maker with a $1.77 million fine in February 2015. It was an unusually high penalty, which came after investigators identified “egregious” safety violations between 2011 and 2014. During that 36-month period, there were more than 1,000 worker injuries at its Arcadia facility alone. Ninety-six came from interactions with machines, and seven were identified as amputations.
Conditions were allegedly so grave that OSHA placed the company on its “Severe Violator Enforcement Program.”
Five months later in July 2015, Ashley Furniture was fined another $83,200 for alleged repeated and “willful” worker safety violations, after OSHA accused the company of failing to report another finger amputation at its Arcadia plant.
The third penalty of $431,000 came in October 2015, for allegedly failing to protect workers from moving machine parts at its Whitehall, Wis., furniture upholstery plant.
In all of its inspections, OSHA faulted Ashley Furniture for failing to implement safety procedures that would have protected workers from exposure to dangerous machine parts, especially when changing blades, cleaning machines and clearing jams. The company also allegedly failed to have operators use locking devices to prevent unexpected machine movement, a violation that ranks among OSHA’s most frequently cited and often results in death or permanent disability.
During the investigation, federal safety officials had harsh words for the company.
Perez accused Ashley Furniture of “creating a culture that values production and profit over worker safety.” David Michaels, OSHA’s assistant secretary of labor, said that the company “intentionally and willfully” disregarded safety standards to meet deadlines and that it “apparently blamed the victims for their own injuries” rather than “unsafe conditions created by the company.”