Report details dangers at Pendleton

State agency's records cite multitude of violations that jeopardize worker safety at Washougal woolen mill

By Aaron Corvin, Columbian port & economy reporter

Published:

 
photoThe Washington Department of Labor & Industries cited Pendleton Woolen Mills' textile plant in Washougal, shown, August 3, 2012, for 36 ìseriousî safety and health rule violations, meaning situations where a worker could be seriously injured or killed.

(/The Columbian)

Buy this photo
photoThe Washington Department of Labor & Industries cited Pendleton Woolen Mills' textile plant in Washougal, shown, August 3, 2012, for 36 ìseriousî safety and health rule violations, meaning situations where a worker could be seriously injured or killed. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)
photoThe Washington Department of Labor & Industries cited Pendleton Woolen Mills' textile plant in Washougal, shown, August 3, 2012, for 36 ìseriousî safety and health rule violations, meaning situations where a worker could be seriously injured or killed. (Steven Lane/The Columbian)
photoThe Washington Department of Labor & Industries cited Pendleton Woolen Mills' textile plant in Washougal, shown, August 3, 2012, for 36 "serious" safety and health rule violations, meaning situations where a worker could be seriously injured or killed.

(/The Columbian)

Buy this photo

Pendleton appeal close to resolution

On July 10, Pendleton Woolen Mills filed an appeal of “all factual and legal aspects of all alleged violations” cited by Washington’s Department of Labor & Industries. Those include 36 “serious” violations of workplace safety and health rules, which included fines of $93,300, and five smaller violations.

In the appeal process, the violations may be upheld, changed or reversed in full or in part. The penalties may be reduced or eliminated. Or a settlement may be reached that involves certain terms. If Pendleton isn’t satisfied with the result, it may take the matter to the Washington State Board of Industrial Insurance Appeals, a separate agency from L&I. Either party could appeal from that board to Superior Court.

However, L&I spokeswoman Elaine Fischer said a final outcome of Pendleton’s appeal is expected Thursday.

— Aaron Corvin

Pendleton says it’s working with regulators

In seeking comments from managers of Pendleton Woolen Mills in Washougal, The Columbian was referred to the company’s public relations representative, Cheryl Engstrom, president of Bothell-based Engstrom Public Relations. At Engstrom’s request, the Columbian submitted its questions in writing.

In an Aug. 30 emailed response to The Columbian, Engstrom said the company wasn’t able to “provide any specific answers” because it was in the middle of the appeal process with the Washington Department of Labor & Industries. She released this statement from the company:

“Pendleton’s management and employees are committed to a safe and healthy work environment. The company has worked cooperatively with L&I for decades and welcomes their contributions and guidance. The L&I inspections are an opportunity for Pendleton to improve its safety programs. During this past inspection process, management dedicated hundreds of hours of time to work with the inspectors. Immediately following the release of the report, Pendleton addressed the issues raised in the report with most abated. The appeal filed is allowing for continued dialogue with L&I to work through any remaining issues and provide further clarification and information. During this process, the company is not in a position to provide any further comment.”

— Aaron Corvin

Pendleton Woolen Mills

What: One of Oregon’s largest and oldest family-owned businesses, famous for its Pacific Northwest-inspired wool apparel and Native American blanket designs. Its products are sold by retailers and through Pendleton’s stores and website, as well as by mail-order catalog.

Headquarters: 220 N.W. Broadway, Portland.

Executives: Bill Lawrence, CEO; Broughton (Brot) Bishop, vice chairman; C. M. (Mort) Bishop III, president; Dennis Simmonds, CFO; John Bishop, vice president and chairman of the board; Charles Bishop, vice president; and Peter Bishop, vice president.

Total employees: 830.

Website: Pendleton

Pendleton Washougal mill

What: The company’s largest wool-weaving mill, where deliveries of raw wool fibers are processed into yarns that are dyed and made into fabrics.

Where: 2 Pendleton Way, Washougal.

Division manager: Charles Bishop.

Employees: 190.

Hours: 24 hours a day, Monday-Friday.

Mill tours: Phone 360-835-1118 to schedule.

Pendleton Woolen Mills is one of the Northwest's best-known and most respected companies, a rare survivor from the region's industrial past that is positioned for a prosperous future.Yet as the Portland-based company celebrates the 100th anniversary of its Washougal textile mill, the antiquate mill is proving to be an embarrassment as the company faces charges from the state of failing to protect the health and safety of the mill's 190 workers.

Exhaustive records of the state's most recent health and safety inspection of the mill, obtained by The Columbian through a public records request, paint a picture of managers unaware of basic safety rules, dangerous machinery lacking in required safety devices, and safety procedures that go unenforced and needlessly expose employees to potential serious injury or death.

Those records formed the foundation of the Washington Department of Labor & Industries' 41 citations and $93,300 in penalties against the company in June. Pendleton officially disputes all of the violations and has asked L&I through its Seattle attorney to throw them all out, along with the fines. At the same time, it's negotiating with the state on a possible settlement.

Workplaces are far safer now than in past generations, and the state conducts hundreds of inspections each year to try to keep them that way. But industrial workplaces are still filled with potential dangers for workers under the best of circumstances. Evidence suggests that Pendleton is working to eliminate risks that were found in the state's inspection of the Washougal mill, but its troubles underscore the critical importance of constant vigilance on workplace safety.

Pendleton officials say they're unwilling to comment on specific issues during negotiations. The mill is managed by company vice president Charles Bishop, a member of the family that has owned the mill for six generations.

State officials, also citing ongoing negotiations, declined to comment on the details of L&I's investigation of the mill.

Public records show that state safety and health inspectors who examined the 300,000-square-foot mill, and who interviewed employees and managers during on-site visits, found that millworkers faced potential dangers including electrical shock, suffocation, broken bones, lacerations and amputation of the extremities.

It's not just the risk of harm or death that fill notebooks from the inspection, which ran from last December until May of this year. Actual injuries also dot the inspectors' paperwork, including hearing loss, repeated acid burns to arms and feet, puncture wounds and gashes requiring stitches.

It's not that Pendleton doesn't have a safety committee where employees may voice their concerns, said Joseph Funck, chief shop steward of the mill who's worked there for 23 years. It's that the company ignored it.

"We have to fight them on everything," Funck said. At one point during L&I's examination of the mill, an inspector asked Mary Rogers, a 25-year employee who had just joined the safety committee, to describe Pendleton's safety program. The inspector jotted down Rogers' reply: "Does not feel like there is one."

Standards 'not being enforced'

Dave Murphy, a 42-year employee of Pendleton and the mill's local union president, called the L&I inspection of the mill a wake-up call for the company. "It's getting better," he said of the workplace health and safety conditions. "And they need to keep working on it."

He said managers are finally getting the training they need at a mill where safety used to be the No. 1 priority.

What the company also needs to do is "take care of their employees," Murphy said, employees who are very productive and who are trying to save Pendleton a lot of money.

Without the employees, he added, the company "wouldn't be anything."

Washington's Industrial Safety and Health Act requires employers to provide a healthy and safe environment free from recognized hazards and to establish a safety program that includes accident prevention measures. Pendleton was aware of the law and had participated in inspections and consultations over the years, L&I records show. It had also made efforts to comply with safety standards, but the state found in its recent investigation that "many were not being enforced."

Labor & Industries cited Pendleton for 36 "serious" safety and health rule violations, meaning situations where a worker could be seriously injured or killed. It also tagged the company for five smaller violations that carried no penalties. Elaine Fischer, a spokeswoman for L&I, said she's not aware of "any cases of any death" at the mill.

Labor & Industries gave Pendleton until the end of August to fix the violations. Eleven of the mill's "serious" violations and two of the smaller ones were corrected by Pendleton during the L&I inspection, the results of which were released as two final health and safety reports on June 19. In its Aug. 30 statement to The Columbian, Pendleton said that immediately after L&I released its reports, the company "addressed the issues raised" by L&I, "with most abated." Labor & Industries had most recently inspected the plant in 2008 and 2010. Both of those inspections were limited in scope, and neither found workplace rules violations.

In the last three years, Pendleton has had 57 workers' compensation claims -- filed by workers who get hurt or sick because of their job -- resulting in $830,659 in medical and wage-replacement costs covered by L&I through a fund financed by insurance rates the agency charges employers.

The state's rating system found that the company's claim costs were "lower than the average for other companies in the same risk class," said Fischer.

Growing frustration

In the period leading up to this year's final inspection reports, employee frustration over the mill's working conditions were mounting.

The mill's employees belong to the Workers United union, although they are eventually expected to transition into the membership of the Service Employees International Union Local 49.

Until that occurs, SEIU Local 49 has a contract to act as the workers' lead representative.

In early 2011, the union filed a grievance with the company complaining about poor ventilation and temperature control. The grievance said the mill was too hot, workers were feeling nauseous and dizzy, and that some of them had gone to the hospital because of it.

Eventually, the Washington Department of Labor & Industries, as part of a consultation visit to the company, issued a report about heat at the mill that found no hazards.

The report found that in some instances the temperature got as high as 83 degrees Fahrenheit. It recommended the company not exceed 86 degrees.

Later, the union issued a flier urging workers to report if temperatures reached above 86 degrees, and to immediately tell a union steward about any safety hazards.

Nearly three weeks before Christmas last year, a Pendleton employee lodged an anonymous complaint about a hazardous staircase and a dangerous stack of pallets. Labor & Industries decided those two complaints were "not substantiated," records show.

However, the worker also leveled a broader grievance about overall safety at the mill, one that prompted L&I to launch its investigation: "There are numerous other hazards throughout the building. When hazards are brought up to management, they are frequently brushed off as too minor or costing too much to fix," the complaint said.

As inspectors began their examination, records show, the company was reluctant to give them access to all of the inside of the mill.

L&I inspector Dominique Damian wrote: "The employer did not reveal all areas of the mill during the original walk-around. Upon the third site visit, through employee interviews, the basement of the mill, maintenance shop, boiler room, and compressor room were identified. Further serious violations were identified in each of these locations.

"The employer was cooperative and receptive once hazards were identified."

'So loud in their workplace'

The records produced by L&I repeatedly note that millworkers are skilled at their jobs, possessing the ability to operate certain machines properly. And when Pendleton could produce safety training records or when it provided personal protective equipment to workers, such as safety glasses, or when the company corrected a problem on the spot, L&I recorded it.

But glaring hazards stand out in the state's inspection reports, as does the inaction of managers charged with ensuring the safety of employees.

Take hearing protection. As L&I inspector Lynda Winter put it: "Exposure to loud noise results in permanent, irreversible hearing loss up to and including complete deafness."

Yet Pendleton didn't require employees to use hearing protection when noise levels exceeded acceptable limits, records show.

Personal noise sampling conducted in 2008 by a private consultant and this year by L&I indicated employees working in the mill's weave, rewind, spinning and carding areas were exposed to noise levels that eclipsed the state's permissible limit of 85 decibels (for an eight-hour, time-weighted average).

"Although it is made available and 'Hearing Protection Required' signs were posted," Winter wrote, "employees were not required to wear hearing protection and many were not."

What's more, "employees have not had recent training on hearing conservation," Winter continued, and employees sustain hearing loss "on a yearly basis at Pendleton." In the past two years, she also noted, more than 10 percent of the exposed workforce experienced hearing loss.

Some employees said they weren't sure if hearing protection was required but wore it anyway "because it is so loud in their workplace," according to Winter's report.

At one point, Winter asked Brent Saylor, mill manager, about the lack of enforcement of hearing protection. Saylor "stated that he wasn't sure if hearing protection was required," according to Winter.

"When I asked him about the sign that said 'Hearing Protection Required,' he indicated that he had not been informed of the requirement and that he did not think it was enforced," Winter said.

Repeated splash burns

Millworkers also handle chemicals -- but Pendleton failed to properly equip them so that they could do so safely, records show.

And while workers are trained on how to use chemicals in production, they "are not aware of the hazards of the chemicals they work with," according to Winter.

Some employees, Winter noted, "have trained themselves by reading (material safety data sheets)."

Moreover, employees who pour and mix acids and caustics, and maintenance workers who repair pipes "were wearing only safety glasses and nitrile gloves that covered one third of their arms," Winter reported. What's more, she noted, "employees were not provided and required to wear the (personal protective equipment) as listed in the associated (material safety data sheets) for these hazardous chemicals."

In the mill's dye house -- where workers "are constantly pouring and mixing chemicals and walking with open containers of caustics," Winter wrote, employees should wear at all times rubber boots, aprons, chemical safety goggles, face shields, rubber gloves and arm protection.

The unsafe conditions surrounding the handling of chemicals went on for two years, records show.

The risk was clear: Contact with corrosive chemicals, according to Winter, "will cause burns and permanent injury. Exposure to the eyes could cause permanent blindness or injury."

Injuries occurred: "Employees report many chemical burns to their arms and feet -- both reported and unreported," Winter noted. On March 13, "a dye house employee burned her foot from a formic acid spill and sought medical care," according to Winter.

She also noted: "Employees report repeated splash burns to their arms and feet."

Meanwhile, maintenance workers "remarked that the pipes are not labeled and they don't know the contents of the pipes they are repairing."

At one point during the inspection, Winter asked Andreas Schneider, dye house manager, about the hazards of not providing equipment to shield workers from chemical injuries.

Schneider "stated that he did not think he could require employees to wear rubber boots and other (personal protective equipment) if they did not want to wear it," according to Winter.

After the walk-throughs at the mill, at the close of the inspection process, Pendleton "agreed that chemical safety goggles and impervious rubber boots should be required in the dye house," according to Winter's report. Saylor, the mill manager, "stated that they have ensured the employees wear all of the appropriate (personal protective equipment), including the rubber boots, which should be implemented by June 1."

Machines posed hazards

The lack of personal protective equipment wasn't the only problem.

At the Washougal mill, some machines posed dangers to their operators, records show.

As L&I remarked, many of the mill's "machines and processes have not been updated since the 1940s."

Inside the mill, inspector Damian spotted a band saw in the carpentry room of the maintenance shop. It lacked a guard, "exposing over 12 inches of the blade," Damian wrote, which "subjects employees to severe lacerations, and possibly amputations of fingers."

When Damian asked Jack Higgins, maintenance manager, about it, Higgins stated, "we just didn't think about it," according to Damian. "These machines are so old. As soon as you pointed it out, we guarded it."

In the mill's blanket-weaving department, a sewing machine dubbed the "fringer" lacked a guard to prevent employees from putting their fingers underneath the needle. "Employees must push fabric under the needle," Damian noted. "Their fingers come within centimeters of the operating needle."

Workers who'd been using the machine for more than six months were well aware of the danger.

"One employee stated during the walk-around that she had her finger stuck by a needle before," according to Damian. "The same employee stated she was lucky the needle didn't get stuck in her finger like a lot of other people."

During the inspection, Damian noted, Pendleton "removed this machine from service."

Labor & Industries' sweep of the Pendleton mill also discovered bare power supply wires on a compressor operating at 240 volts. "Maintenance staff that inspect the compressors on a daily basis were exposed to electrical shock resulting in death," Damian said in her report.

It had been that way for six months.

At the time of the inspection, the company placed a new cover over the wires.

Confined spaces at issue

It's not unusual for industrial buildings to contain "permit-required confined spaces" or limited-access areas where a worker can become trapped or subject to possible dangers. Permits are like safety checklists, spelling out access and evacuation rules, and other emergency procedures, among other requirements. At the Washougal mill, employees enter several confined spaces, including dye machines, boiler vessels, fire system valve pits, and a wastewater treatment plant pump station.

The Labor & Industries probe of the facility turned up numerous violations of confined-space entry rules, including that Pendleton failed to identify and post notices at all permit-required confined spaces; failed to train and properly equip employees; and failed to develop a plan for safe escape during emergencies.

Winter asked Higgins, the maintenance manager, about the confined-space gaps. Higgins "stated that the boiler operation should have been a permitted system and that they failed follow through," according to Winter.

As the inspection went on, Winter further noted, Higgins "began working on a confined-space entry program which listed all of the (permit-required confined spaces) at the mill."

Violations challenged

As Labor & Industries developed its list of health and safety violations, the agency shared its draft findings with Pendleton and exchanged emails with the company for comment. Even though the company had acknowledged shortcomings during the inspection and had fixed some problems on the spot, it objected to some of L&I's draft violation proposals. For example, the company said one machine had been decommissioned and that another issue had been fixed.

Pendleton also said some machines that had been tagged with violations had been operated without any history of accidents. In one other case, the company said the likelihood of an injury was very low.

The company's human resources manager, Cindy Castro, in a May 29 email to inspectors Winter and Damian, said a proposed violation linked to exposed belts on the company's spinning machines didn't warrant a violation.

"The spinning frames are an old design yet the machines remain in original condition, have not been modified, and have operated 16-24 hrs/day for over 50 years without an accident resulting from this condition," she wrote. "This design is used industrywide and is common equipment for this application."

The company also disagreed with all of L&I's proposed serious violations concerning confined-space entry procedures. It also took umbrage with a proposed violation that called on the company to correct deficiencies in its hearing-loss prevention program.

"We believe we have prevented employee hearing loss by minimizing and providing protection from noise exposure," Castro wrote. "We conduct testing for new hires and perform annual testing thereafter and utilize a licensed audiologist to conduct the testing. We will review our program for deficiencies but do not feel this is a serious violation."

Damian, the inspector, replied by email, addressing the company's arguments.

"Many of the items of concern state there has not been an injury yet," she wrote. "We do not consider this when determining the severity of a violation."

She went on to say that L&I must identify the most serious injury that could happen "in the event an employee was to become injured by one of the identified hazards."

Fourteen minutes after Damian's reply landed in Castro's in-box on that May afternoon, Saylor, the mill manager, sent his own email to Damian.

"Appreciate your feedback" he wrote to the inspector. "I would like you and (inspector Lynda Winter) to know since you first visited we have aggressively made safety a top priority in our mill and we appreciate your positive input along the way through the inspection."

Aaron Corvin: http://twitter.com/col_econ; http://on.fb.me/AaronCorvin; 360-735-4518; aaron.corvin@columbian.com.