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Ashley Furniture challenges latest OSHA citations

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Home décor retailer Ashley Furniture Industries Inc. is contesting another significant fine from the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration for ongoing workplace safety violations.

The latest proposed fine totals $431,000 after OSHA cited the Arcadia, Wisconsin-based company for one willful, five repeated and two serious violations on Monday, including failing to protect workers from moving machine parts at its Whitehall, Wisconsin, upholstery factory, the agency said Monday in a statement. The latest penalties come on top of more than $1.8 million in fines issued earlier this year during inspections at other company facilities in Wisconsin, according to the agency.

The latest citations resulted from an April 2015 inspection initiated under OSHA's Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which focuses resources on inspecting employers who, according to the agency, have demonstrated indifference to their Occupational Safety and Health Act obligations through willful, repeated or failure-to-abate violations.

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

“Workers risked amputation injuries each time they serviced the machinery,” Mark Hysell, OSHA's area director in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, said in the statement. “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.”

Ashley Furniture strongly disagrees with and will vigorously challenge these proposed citations, according to a company statement.

“The claim that Ashley failed to protect its workers from moving machine parts is outrageous,” Paul Waters, legal counsel for Ashley Furniture, said in the statement. “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. We will vigorously defend ourselves against these charges before the (Occupational Safety and Health) Review Commission.”

In January, the agency cited Ashley Furniture for 38 safety violations and proposed penalties totaling nearly $1.8 million after an OSHA investigation found workers at the company's Arcadia plant experienced more than 1,000 recordable work-related injuries in the previous 3½ years, according to OSHA's press release. A recordable injury requires medical treatment beyond first aid or results in death, lost work hours, restricted work or a job transfer.

In July, the agency proposed penalties totaling $83,200 after its investigation of a March amputation injury. OSHA placed the company in the program for failure to address safety hazards, with the designation resulting in open inspections at Ashley Furniture's facilities in California, Pennsylvania, Mississippi and North Carolina, according to the agency.

The company continues to expand its already-extensive safety program with additional training, additional machinery processes and other improvements, Ashley Furniture said in its statement. In the past five years, the company has a track record of lowering its incident and days away, restricted or transferred, demonstrating its commitment to real and tangible safety improvements, the company stated.

The company is also contesting the previously issued citations, according to a company spokesperson.

“Each employee's safety and well-being is an absolute priority at Ashley,” said 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.”