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Ashley Furniture faces $1.8 million fine for lax worker safety

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Federal safety officials accuse Ashley Furniture of Arcadia Wis., of valuing "production and profit over worker safety" and are calling for the company to pay nearly $1.8 million in fines for a string of workplace safety violations at its manufacturing plant there.

Over a more than three-year period, Ashley employees in Arcadia suffered more than 1,000 work-related injuries, including the amputations of several fingers, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in a news release Monday. The Arcadia factory employs more than 4,500 people.

OSHA inspected the facility after one worker lost three fingers in July while operating a woodworking machine without required safety mechanisms in place, the agency said.

Investigators found "12 willful, 12 repeated and 14 serious safety violations" at the Arcadia plant. OSHA said Ashley has been cited for safety problems previously and is now on the agency's Severe Violator Enforcement Program for failing to address those safety hazards.

"Ashley Furniture intentionally and willfully disregarded OSHA standards and its own corporate safety manuals to encourage workers to increase productivity and meet deadlines," said David Michaels, the assistant secretary of labor of occupational safety and health.

“Having 1,000 work injuries in three years is proof positive that safety in this plant needs tremendous improvement," Michaels told the Star Tribune.

The company issued a statement Monday saying it "strongly disagrees with each and every one" of OSHA's allegations, and said the proposed fines are "inappropriate and overzealous."

“At Ashley, each employee's safety and well-being is an absolute priority,” said Steve Ziegeweid, the company's director of health and safety. He noted that Ashley has lowered its incident rate by 14 percent over the past five years, and says the company is committed to "real and tangible improvements in safety.”

Ashley has 15 business days to either comply with the ruling or file an appeal.

The company, which is privately held, had about $3.8 billion in revenue as of October. It employs about 20,000 workers at 30 locations nationwide, and sells its furniture at retail outlets across the country.

Arcadia is a city of about 3,000 people located about 50 miles north of La Crosse, Wis.

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