Ashley Furniture accused of worker safety violations

Ashley Furniture, the nation's biggest furniture manufacturers, was penalized $1.76 million by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for numerous serious safety violations at its main manufacturing facility.

OSHA on Monday said that its investigators found 12 willful, 12 repeated and 14 serious safety violations at the Ashley Furniture complex in Arcadia, Wisconsin. Ashley is also one of the largest furniture retailers in the U.S.

OSHA says the company's safety record is so poor that the administration has placed Ashley in its "Severe Violator Enforcement Program." Over the past three-and-a-half years, more than 1,000 work-related injuries were reported among the 4,500 employees at the facility, including one who had three fingers cut off last summer in a woodworking machine that OSHA said did not have the required safety mechanisms.

"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 in a statement. "Safety and profits are not an 'either, or' proposition. Successful companies across this nation have both."

OSHA said Ashley "did not take the necessary steps to protect its workers from being injured by moving machine parts." At least 100 injuries at the plant occurred under such circumstances, the agency said.

The so-called willful violations are those "committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirement, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health," OSHA said.

"Ashley Furniture intentionally and willfully disregarded OSHA standards and its own corporate safety manuals to encourage workers to increase productivity and meet deadlines," Dr. David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor of occupational safety and health, said in a statement. "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. OSHA is committed to making sure that the total disregard Ashley Furniture has shown to safety stops here and now."

The company responded in a statement, saying it "strongly disputes the allegations issued today by the U.S. Occupation Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regarding the company's safety operations."

Ashley plans to contest the allegations and penalties."The Company strongly disagrees with each and every one of the agency's assertions and believes the proposed penalties are grossly inappropriate and over-zealous," the statement said.

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    Mitch Lipka is an award-winning consumer columnist. He was in charge of consumer news for AOL's personal finance site and was a senior editor at Consumer Reports. He was also a reporter for The Philadelphia Inquirer and the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, among other publications.