Ashley Furniture cited again for on-the-job machine hazards?

Ashley Furniture, America's largest retailer of home decor, faces US$431,000 in proposed federal safety and health fines for failing to protect workers from moving machine parts at its upholstery factory in Whitehall, Wis. This penalty is in addition to more than $1.8 million in fines issued earlier this year during inspections at other company facilities.

The United States Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration issued Ashley Furniture one willful, five repeated and two serious citations on Oct. 19. Ashley faces the US$431,000 in penalties as a result of an April 2015 inspection initiated under the Severe Violator Enforcement Program. Company headquarters in Arcadia, Wis., received similar citations in January and July 2015.

"Workers risked amputation injuries each time they serviced the machinery," said Mark Hysell, OSHA's area director in Eau Claire, Wis. "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."

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

Ashley Furniture has released a statement saying it strongly disagrees with "and will vigorously challenge" the proposed citations. It says the inspectors "did not actually see many of the alleged violations in Whitehall – but merely may have based their allegations on assumptions."

Paul Waters, legal counsel for Ashley Furniture, said the claim that the company failed to protect its workers is "outrageous."

"At all times, Ashley has machine guards in place that are provided by the manufacturer and, in some cases, the company has gone beyond what manufacturers put in place by installing additional guards and implementing special procedures to protect workers," he said.

The agency cited Ashley Furniture in January 2015 for 38 safety violations. Proposed penalties total US$1,766,000. OSHA issued the citations following an investigation that found workers at the Arcadia plant experienced more than 1,000 OSHA recordable work-related injuries in the previous three and one-half years. A recordable injury requires medical treatment beyond first aid, or results in death, lost work hours, restricted work or a job transfer.

The agency also proposed penalties of US$83,200 in July as a result of its investigation of a March 11, 2015, amputation injury. OSHA placed the company in the SVEP for failure to address safety hazards. As a result of the SVEP designation, inspections are open at Ashley's facilities in California, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and North Carolina.

Ashley Furniture has contested all citations issued. A hearing before the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission will be scheduled.

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