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Earlier this week, the Labor Department announced that it would levy $1.7 million in fines on Ashley Furniture, one of the world's largest furniture companies. The fines stem from a number of health and safety violations the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) found at Ashley's factory in Arcadia, Wisconsin.
What do small business owners need to know about this penalty?
Signed into law in 1970, the OSH Act allows OSHA to craft regulations regarding workplace safety, which aren't just handy guidelines; they're the law. Failure to adhere to safety requirements can subject an employer to fines. Repeated violations carry a penalty of up to $70,000 per violation.
Standards vary by industry, and can regulate everything from whether a walkway in a sawmill needs a ladder to specifications for sugar and spice pulverizers in a bakery.
Ashley earned 12 "willful" 12 "repeated," and 14 "serious" violations. In fact, it's racked up over 1,000 work-related injuries for just 4,500 employees over three-and-a-half years. In a New York Times interview, Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez called Ashley a "frequent flier for OSHA," suggesting that the company has a history of either ignoring violations or paying the fines, then going back to business as usual.
For that, OSHA took the additional step of placing Ashley into its Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which increases penalties and inspections for companies that "demonstrated indifference" toward OSHA requirements.
According to the Department of Labor, a "willful" violation is "committed with intentional, knowing or voluntary disregard for the law's requirement, or with plain indifference to employee safety and health." According to OSHA, Ashley didn't prevent machines from starting when workers were switching out the blades, or provide safety mechanisms to prevent contact with moving parts.
The OSHA press release details a particularly gruesome incident in which a worker lost three fingers while operating a woodworking machine that lacked required safety mechanisms. It was this particular incident, which occurred in July, that prompted OSHA's current investigation.
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