After a figurative but wild roller-coaster ride for the past eight months, the iconic Pendleton Woolen Mills textile plant in Washougal appears to be approaching a period of stability. At least, that's what the plant's 190 workers, supervisors and management officials are hoping.Starting in December 2011, the Washington State Department of Labor and Industries launched inspections at the mill that lasted through May. In June, L&I cited Pendleton for three dozen "serious" safety and health rule violations, plus five lesser violations, and imposed $93,300 in penalties. In July, Pendleton appealed.
In August, Pendleton Woolen Mills -- described in a later Columbian story as "one of the Northwest's best-known and most respected companies" -- celebrated its centennial. Presumably, the celebration of a 100th birthday is tempered in no small measure by looming regulatory penalties and lingering litigation.
On Sept. 13, Pendleton reached a settlement with L&I. The company agreed to take steps to boost health and safety at the plant. The new measures include upgraded safety and training programs. In return, L&I reduced the fine to $46,650.
On the bright side, both private-sector Pendleton and public-sector L&I can now avoid "protracted and expensive litigation," according to the settlement agreement that was obtained by The Columbian through a public records request.
Also on the positive side, Pendleton employees have reason to believe working at the plant will become less dangerous. At one point this year, Joseph Funck, chief shop steward, said of the safety concerns that had been voiced to management: "We have to fight them on everything." After the settlement, Funck, a 23-year Pendleton employee, said "things are much better … It's a much better situation."
There's a positive component for the community as well, which now can take a little more pride in a large company that opened its doors to inspectors, incurred numerous charges of safety violations, apparently worked vigorously to correct those shortcomings, and now is on a path that probably won't resemble a roller-coaster ride.
Pendleton workers in the past three years have filed 57 workers' compensation claims (for getting hurt or sick because of their job), leading to $830,659 in medical and wage-replacement costs covered by L&I. Company officials will point out that those statistics are lower than the average for companies facing similar safety risks.
But the bottom line in all of this is the value of regulatory agencies such as L&I. This kind of oversight -- responding to, researching and resolving safety complaints -- produces at least three benefits: (1) most importantly, safer workplaces; (2) efficiencies for companies that see increased equipment and training costs more than offset by savings in penalties, settlements and legal costs; (3) advantages for taxpayers through a strengthened local economy.
We hope the next eight months bring a smoother ride for Pendleton, the company and the workers.