Pendleton Woolen Mills has agreed to take extra steps to boost health and safety at its Washougal textile mill in exchange for paying reduced penalties for violations under an agreement it has reached with state regulators.
Under terms of that agreement with the Washington State Department of Labor & Industries, the Portland-based company will pay a total penalty of $46,650. That's half of the original $93,300 assessed by L&I, which the company had appealed.
In return, Pendleton must take additional actions, including sending at least two employees annually — for a period of three years — to a major safety and health conference.
With the settlement in place, Pendleton can speed its work in eliminating the mill's remaining workplace hazards while avoiding "protracted and expensive litigation," according to the settlement agreement, dated Sept. 13 and obtained by The Columbian through a public records request.
The settlement marks the conclusion of an eight-month-long case concerning workplace health and safety conditions at the 100-year-old Washougal mill, where raw wool fibers are processed into yarns that are dyed and made into fabrics.
An L&I examination of the 300,000-square-foot mill — launched in late 2011 on the basis of an anonymous complaint filed by a Pendleton employee — found millworkers faced potential dangers including electrical shock, suffocation, broken bones, lacerations and amputation of the extremities.
In a statement to The Columbian on Tuesday, Charles Bishop, vice president of mill operations for Pendleton and a member of the family that has owned the mill for six generations, said the appeals process allowed the company "time to submit additional information, seek clarification from L&I and in the process improve overall communication. The agreement to settle the appeal allows Pendleton and L&I to focus time, energy and resources on the continuous improvement of the safety program."
Labor & Industries spokesman Hector Castro said Tuesday the settlement was "very good" from the perspective of the agency's health and safety inspectors. That's because none of the violations cited by inspectors were changed by Pendleton's appeal, he said. Only the final penalty amount was modified, which is not unusual.
Castro said the point of fining companies for workplace health and safety violations is to prod them to correct hazards. "It opens their eyes to the fact that safety isn't something you can get lax about," he said.
Labor & Industries' inspection, which ran from last December until May of this year, documented injuries to workers, including hearing loss, repeated acid burns to arms and feet, puncture wounds and gashes requiring stitches.
The inspection resulted in two reports, released in June, in which L&I 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.
Company disputed charges
In July, Pendleton appealed those findings through a Seattle law firm, asking L&I to throw them all out, along with the fines. During its appeal, documents show, the company disputed L&I's citations, defending its machines, its health and safety processes, and its training programs. The company's remarks include comments from Bishop, other mill managers and some employees.
Documents show, for example, the company repeatedly noting some of the machines linked to hazards had been in use for more than 50 years and no serious injuries or accidents had been recorded. Labor & Industries has said it doesn't judge the severity of a hazard based on the fact that an injury hasn't happened yet.
Pendleton also defended how it handled the L&I inspection process. "At no time were the L&I inspectors prevented or discouraged from inspecting any areas of the plant, interviewing any employees or requesting any information," Bishop wrote in a Sept. 12 letter to L&I.
Appeal documents show the company also acknowledged gaps in its health and safety programs. Examples: the company said it removed a band saw from service and installed additional guards, that it revised its confined-space entry procedures and that "deficiencies in the hearing loss prevention program were identified and corrected."
The company also said the guarding of additional "nip points" on its carding machines "is currently under review and could take up to six months to design, fabricate and install."
Records show Pendleton fixed some of the violations as they were pointed out by L&I inspectors. In an Aug. 30 statement to The Columbian, the company said it had fixed most of the issues raised in L&I's inspection reports.
In his Sept. 12 letter to L&I, Bishop said: "Corrective actions were immediately initiated on the violations that required additional investigation, time and resources."
Castro, the L&I spokesman, said the company has about 10 issues left to correct.
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.
Joseph Funck, chief shop steward of the Washougal mill who's worked there for 23 years, said Tuesday "things are much better" at the plant. "It's a much better situation," said Funck, who noted that media coverage may have contributed to recent improvements.
And the company must do more work under the settlement agreement it reached with L&I. Pendleton received an extension to the end of this year "to design engineering controls for the cited machines and an additional six months to complete the installation of the guards," documents show.
L&I says the company must fix all of the problems by June 30, 2013. Pendleton also must provide progress reports beginning Nov. 1.
And the company has agreed to pay the revised penalty amount of $46,650 by the end of this year.
If Pendleton fails to comply with any of the terms of the agreement, documents show, L&I reserves the right to void the settlement and to reinstate all of the original penalty amounts.
Labor & Industries said agreeing to the settlement doesn't mean it couldn't have made its case, with the original penalty amounts, against Pendleton.
Likewise, the company said reaching a settlement with L&I doesn't mean its conduct was illegal.
"Rather, the parties believe settlement" of the case serves the "best interest of all in order to avoid the costs and uncertainties of litigations."