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COPY-UPDATE: Arcadia mayor and OSHA respond to Ashley Furniture facing fines

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Arcadia (WQOW) - The largest furniture manufacturer in the world is facing possible fines of $1.76 million for unsafe working conditions.

According to OSHA there have been more than 1,000 work-related injuries at the Ashley Furniture plant in Arcadia, which is about an hour south of Eau Claire.

Those alleged injuries happened in the last three and a half years and included fractured skulls, broken arms and crushed hands.

According to a recent investigation, OSHA says 100 of those injuries were on hazardous machinery, and some of those even resulted in amputations. 

"Arcadia would be lost without companies like Ashley," says John Kimmel, the Mayor of Arcadia.

Many community members consider Ashley Furniture an anchor of employment in the city. "I've always known Ashley to be a world class company. They strive for excellence, they strive for setting the example and they've always done that in every interaction that I've had with them,” says Kimmel.

But a recent investigation by OSHA claims the working conditions there aren't safe. OSHA says 1,000 employees have been injured there in the past three and a half years.

Mark Hysell, the Area OSHA Director, says, "That's a significant amount of injuries. In this particular inspection we found that in each and every time an employee was injured, the employer, Ashley Furniture identified that it was the employees fault."

OSHA claims the company was notified about heavy machinery that didn't meet federal standards during the investigation but continued to use it anyway. Hysell says, "It's unconscionable that employees are disciplined for reaching into moving equipment time and time again and injuries that have happened on the same pieces of equipment on multiple occasions."

Kimmel says, "I know people who were employee numbers down in their 40's and 50's, they've been there since the 1970's. And you don't get commitment like that, you don't get longevity like that from the employees side if there is something wrong."

WQOW News 18 spoke with a community member Monday whose husband works at Ashley and says there are very strict procedures for safety. She believes it's up to the individual whether to follow them.

OSHA tells News 18 the company has fifteen working days to settle the fines and come to an agreement to increase safety moving forward. If Ashley Furniture contests, it would ultimately go to trial.

In a statement Ashley said it strongly disputes the allegations made against them.

Ashley Furniture's full response can be found here.


View the current citations here

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Arcadia (WQOW) - In three and a half year period, employees at Ashley Furniture Industries Incorporated, in Arcadia, experienced more than 1,000 work-related injuries, according to the United States Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).“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 E. Perez said. “Safety and profits are not an ‘either, or' proposition. Successful companies across this nation have both.”

The 12 willful and 12 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. OSHA requires employers to be responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970. OSHA's role is to ensure these conditions for America's working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance.

The company released a statement saying it reported an estimated 880 individual cases of all injuries and illnesses from 2012 to 2014 at its Arcadia facility. These numbers are provided by Ashley on self-reports that the company files on each and every employee illness or injury – including certain strains, sprains, and various cuts and bruises. The most common injury reported was muscle strains, based on information the furniture giant released Monday.

According to OSHA, Ashley Furniture did not take preventative measures with machines from unintentionally starting while workers were performing tooling and blade changes on woodworking machinery. The company also failed to provide adequate safety mechanisms to prevent contact with those moving parts. 

In response to the OSHA findings, Ashley Furniture released a statement disputing the allegations, regarding the company's safety operations in its Arcadia facility. The company also stated that they strongly disagree with each and every one of the agency's assertions and believes the proposed penalties are grossly inappropriate and over-zealous. 

The press release also stated that Ashley Furniture will present evidence to support their argument against OSHA's allegations.

“At Ashley, each employee's safety and well-being is an absolute priority,” said Ashley Furniture Director of Health and Safety Steve Ziegeweid. “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.”

These types of violations are among the most frequently cited by OSHA and often result in death or permanent disability.

The company has also 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 when the operated machine did not have the required safety mechanisms in place. Of the injuries recorded, more than 100 were caused by similar machinery.

After the finger incident, OSHA conducted an inspection of the Arcadia facility. Investigators identified 12 willful, 12 repeated and 14 serious safety violations at Ashley Furniture, carrying a total of $1.76 million in penalties. 

“Ashley Furniture intentionally and willfully disregarded OSHA standards and its own corporate safety manuals to encourage workers to increase productivity and meet deadlines," Assistant Secretary of Labor Occupational Safety and Health David Michaels 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." 

Forbes lists Ashley Furniture Industries 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 is also the largest employer in Wisconsin's rural Trempealeau County, with a population of about 30,000.

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 serious violations, including not training workers on safety procedures and hazards present when servicing machinery. The company also lacked adequate drenching facilities for workers exposed to corrosive materials; it committed three electrical safety violations, and it did not equip some of its machines with readily-accessible emergency stop buttons.

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.

"OSHA is committed to making sure that the total disregard Ashley Furniture has shown to safety stops here and now," Michaels said.

Ashley Furniture 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. 

Ashley Furniture has been in discussions for several weeks with OSHA officials in Wisconsin regarding operations at our Arcadia facility, specifically regarding inspectors' conclusions stemming from inspections in 2009 and their subsequent opinions regarding safety features and procedures of certain machinery.

View the current citations here

Ashley Furniture's full response can be found here.
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