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Ashley faces additional $431K in health, safety fines

WHITEHALL — Ashley Furniture Industries is facing $431,000 in federal safety and health fines at its Whitehall upholstery factory, but the company announced Monday it will vigorously fight the fines.

The fines announced Monday are in addition to more than $1.8 million in fines already issued against Ashley this year during inspections at its other facilities in Wisconsin. Ashley issued a statement Monday stating the company strongly disagreed with and will vigorously challenge the proposed citations.

The U.S. Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued Ashley Furniture one willful, five repeated and two serious citations on Monday. Ashley faces the penalties as a result of an April 2015 inspection initiated under the Severe Violator Enforcement Program.

The agency said it determined Ashley failed to implement procedures to prevent machines from unintentional start-up when operators changed blades, cleaned machines and cleared jams, exposing workers to dangerous machinery. According to OSHA, the company failed to have operators use locking devices to prevent unexpected machine movement, a procedure known as lockout/tagout. That violation is among OSHA's most frequently cited and often results in death or permanent disability.

"Workers risked amputation injuries each time they serviced the machinery," said Mark Hysell, OSHA's area director in Eau Claire. "Ashley Furniture failed to implement required safety procedures to protect machine operators until after OSHA opened its inspection. The company must make immediate, enforceable safety improvements at its facilities nationwide."


OSHA cited Arcadia-based Ashley Furniture in January with 38 safety violations, with penalties totaling $1.766 million. OSHA issued the citations after an investigation that found workers at the Arcadia plant experienced more than 1,000 work-related injuries in the previous 3½ years that were severe enough to have required medical treatment beyond first aid or resulted in death, lost work hours, restricted work or a job transfer.

The agency also proposed penalties of $83,200 in July as a result of its investigation of a March 11 amputation and placed the company in the severe violator program for its failure to address safety hazards. As a result of the designation, inspections are open at Ashley's facilities in California, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and North Carolina.

The Ashley statement said OSHA's announcement of the citations was not a finding of fact and claimed the agency's own documents appear to show inspectors did not actually see many of the alleged violations in Whitehall and had based their allegations on assumptions. A hearing before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission will be scheduled.

The statement also said Ashley continues to expand its safety program with additional training, additional machinery processes and other improvements. In the past five years, the statement said, the furniture maker has had a track record of lowering the number of incidents and lost work hours and a commitment to improvements in safety across the company.

"Each employee's safety and well-being is an absolute priority at Ashley," Phil Kinney, Ashley's vice president of health and safety, said in the statement. "We strongly disagree with OSHA's conclusions and are ready to present the facts to the agency so that we can resolve our disagreement."

Forbes lists Ashley Furniture as the 117th largest private company in America with $3.85 billion in annual revenue as of October 2014. The worldwide distributor employs nearly 20,000 workers at 30 locations nationwide with 475 workers at the Whitehall plant.

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