by Erik Gunn, Wisconsin Examiner
April 25, 2024

A northern Wisconsin wood processor where a 16-year-old died after an industrial accident in June 2023 was one of 12 employers listed for egregious workplace hazards by a national advocacy group Thursday.

The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (COSH) put Florence Hardwoods on its 2024 “Dirty Dozen” list of “unsafe and reckless employers risking the lives of workers and communities.” The organization produces the list annually ahead of April 28, designated Workers Memorial Day by labor advocates to draw attention to workplace fatalities and injuries.

The 2024 report includes the privately owned Florence County wood processing business along with the hospital chain Ascension, SpaceX, Tyson Foods and the ride-share companies Uber and Lyft, among other employers.

“These are unsafe and reckless employers, risking the lives of workers and communities by failing to eliminate known, preventable hazards,” the report states.

According to federal statistics, 5,486 U.S. workers died from sudden, traumatic workplace injuries in 2022, a 5.7% increase in “preventable deaths” from 2021. Black and Hispanic workers have higher rates of workplace death than the overall population, the report states.

COSH added Florence Hardwoods to this year’s list of companies because of the death of 16-year-old Michael Schuls. Schuls was asphyxiated when he was pinned in a wood-stacking machine while trying to unstack it in the lumber processing company’s planing building on June 29, 2023, according to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

The company is now contesting a $1.4 million penalty OSHA levied in December 2023 after its investigation of the death. OSHA issued citations for 47 violations — one set of 30 violations and another set of 17 violations. The federal agency also put the company in its Severe Violator Enforcement Program for willful and repeat violators.

OSHA said that citations relating to failure to properly lock out equipment during maintenance were similar to citations the agency issued to the company and two affiliated operations in 2020 that left at least five employees seriously injured. An employee of one of the affiliated businesses died from injuries in 2019 while performing maintenance on a trailer, according to the agency.

OSHA’s investigation of Schuls’ death also found evidence of child labor law violations at the business, according to the U.S. Department of Labor, and on Sept. 6, 2023, Florence Hardwoods signed a consent decree in federal court and agreed to pay $190,696 in penalties.

Federal  investigators found that between November 2021 and March 2023 three children ages 15 and 16 were injured at the company, one of them twice, the labor department reported.

The department said that the company employed nine children, ages 14 to 17, who illegally processed lumber using saws and other machines that under federal law are illegal for workers under the age of 18. In addition seven children, ages 14 and 15, were employed outside legally permitted hours, according to the labor department.

After OSHA issued its citations in December Florence Hardwoods issued a statement saying it would comply with the agency’s abatement orders but contest the citations.

The company asserted that employees under 18 were legally working in the planing room in jobs allowed under Wisconsin child labor laws. The statement also said that “several” of the under-18 workers were under state and high school apprenticeship programs, internships and “school to work” programs.

The company did not respond Thursday afternoon to a request for comment on the COSH report. The report states the business now bars workers under 18.

In addition to Florence Hardwoods, the COSH report cites another employer on its list, a chicken-processing company where a 16-year-old worker cleaning a machine was killed in 2023. The report names both the company, Mar-Jac Poultry, and the staffing firm that it works with to fill job openings, but each business denies having been the teen-ager’s employer of record, the report states. OSHA has fined Mar-Jac more than $212,000, according to the report.

The U.S. Department of Labor reported 5,792 children were found working in violation of federal law in 2023, an increase of 88% since 2019, the report notes.

While federal enforcement of child labor laws has increased, the report notes that 12 states have enacted laws easing their restrictions on child labor since 2021 and 18 other states have considered doing so. (In Wisconsin, a bill eliminating work permits that parents must sign to allow 14- and 15-year-olds to go to work passed the Legislature with only Republican votes and was vetoed by Gov. Tony Evers, a Democrat.)

Among other employers listed in the COSH report:Tyson Foods is named for six employee deaths since 2019, along with 140 injuries from hazardous ammonia leaks and more than 300 OSHA citations in the last decade. The report also states that Tyson is under federal investigation for reportedly employing children in dangerous slaughterhouse jobs. The Alabama Department of Corrections, which sends incarcerated people to industrial and fast food jobs in the state that pay them $2 a day, according to the report. The department is now the subject of a federal lawsuit. The health care chain Ascension, the largest Catholic-operated hospital and clinic group in the U.S. The report alleges that staff cuts have made conditions unsafe for workers and patients. Costa Farms, a nursery operator based in Miami, Florida. The report identifies two worker deaths since 2017 due to heat overexposure and blames the company for lobbying against local heat safety regulations for workers. Earlier in April Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation barring local municipalities from enacting such laws. SpaceX and The Boring Company, both owned by Elon Musk, who owns the social media platform X, formerly Twitter. The report cites an OSHA investigation of injuries at The Boring Co., a tunnel construction business, as well as a Reuters news service investigation that found hundreds of previously unreported worker injuries at SpaceX.

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