By Jack Weatherly
A Wisconsin-based furniture maker has drawn a $1.8 million fine from the federal Occupational and Safety and Health Administration for 1,000 injuries to employees in a 42-month period.
Those occurred at the Arcadia, Wis., headquarters plant for Ashley Furniture Industries Inc., which employs 4,500 there, OSHA said in a news release
Ashley employs about 3,600 in Mississippi in three plants.
The largest of the three, at Ecru, employs 2,300 and has been inspected five times dating to April 2003, but no significant fines were levied, according to Rhonda Burke, deputy director of public affairs for the Department of Labor.
There is no record of OSHA inspections of the Ashley plants at Ripley and Verona, she said.
However, the corporation has been placed on OSHA’s Severe Violators Enforcement Program, which means that any of its plants is subject to inspections, whether or not there has been a serious injury, Burke said.
Ashley’s Ripley plant has nearly 1,200 workers and the facility at Verona, which opened two years ago, has approximately 100.
The Arcadia investigation was prompted by an incident in which an employee lost three fingers while operating a wood-working machine, the agency said in a news release.
The 1,000 injuries occurred between Jan. 1, 2011 and July 31, 2014, according to OSHA.
Starting Jan. 1 of this year, manufacturers are required to report “any amputation or injury requiring hospitalization [in-patient or out-patient] to OSHA within 24 hours,” Burke said in an email.
“The incidents at Ashley Furniture are an illustration of why these reporting requirements needed to change,” she wrote. “Had we known the extensive hazards at this facility sooner, we may have been able to intervene before so many workers had to suffer.”
“Ashley Furniture has created a culture that values production and profit over worker safety, and employees are paying the price,” U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas F. Perez said in the release. “Safety and profits are not an ‘either or’ proposition. Successful companies across this nation have both.”
Forbes magazine reported in October that Ashley, founded in 1945 and family owned, is the 117th largest private company in the United States, with more than 22,000 employees and annual revenue of $3.85 billion in 2013. It is the largest furniture maker in Mississippi in terms of employment.
ln a prepared statement, the company said: “Ashley Furniture Industries Inc. strongly disputes the allegations issued today by [OSHA] regarding the companies safety operations in its Arcadia, Wisconsin facility.
“The Company . . . believes the proposed penalties are grossly inappropriate and overzealous.”
Steve Ziegeweid, director of health and safety for the manufacturer, said in a release:
“At Ashley, each employee’s safety and well-being are an absolute priority. 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.”
OSHA’s initial fines are subject to negotiation.
For instance, a $2.8 million fine against Union Carbide in 1991 stands at $1.5 million and a $81.3 million fine against BP Products North America in 2009 stands at $21.2 million, according to OSHA records. The Union Carbide fine ranks 25th among the largest levies and the BP’s is the biggest.
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