, ,

Following death of a teen this summer, Northern Wisconsin sawmill fined $1.4M for OSHA violations

OSHA says Florence Hardwoods failed to properly train employees on safety procedures

Patrick Semansky/AP Photo

A northern Wisconsin sawmill is facing nearly $1.4 million in new fines for workplace safety violations after an investigation into the accident that caused the death of a 16-year-old worker.

The U.S. Department of Labor announced the proposed penalties facing Florence Hardwoods Tuesday. The fines come after Michael Schuls, 16, became trapped in machinery at the sawmill in late June. He was transported to a local hospital and died two days later.

Florence Hardwoods was ordered to pay nearly $200,000 in fines for federal child labor violations in September. Officials found that at least three other children aged 15 and 16 were injured working for Florence Hardwoods between November 2021 and March 2023 — one of those children was injured on two separate occasions.

Stay informed on the latest news

Sign up for WPR’s email newsletter.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Investigators also found the company employed nine underage workers between the ages of 14 and 17 who were illegally allowed to operate machinery. Seven were allowed to work outside legally permitted hours. The U.S. Labor Department says the company terminated all of its underage workers following Schuls’ death.

“There is no excuse for allowing underage workers to operate this type of machinery,” said Acting Secretary of Labor Julie Su in a statement. “Federal child labor and safety regulations exist to prevent employers from putting children at risk. They also exist to hold employers like Florence Hardwoods accountable for endangering these young workers.”

The new penalties are related to safety violations identified by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. According to OSHA, Florence Hardwoods management failed to train teenage and adult workers in safety procedures to prevent equipment from moving during maintenance tasks. Investigators also found fall, machine guarding and electrical hazard violations at the Florence sawmill, similar to infractions the company was cited for in 2020.

Since 2019, at least five employees of the company and its subsidiaries have suffered serious injuries due to lockout failures, including a fatality in 2019, according to OSHA.

“It is incomprehensible how the owners of this company could have such disregard for the safety of these children,” said Douglas Parker, assistant secretary for OSHA, in a statement. “Their reckless and illegal behavior tragically cost a boy his life, and actions such as theirs will never be tolerated.”

In a statement, Florence Hardwoods said it does not agree with the representation of the company’s safety practices, and it intends to appeal the findings of OSHA’s investigation.

“We do not want our stance on the investigation to be misinterpreted. Appealing the findings does not diminish the tragedy that occurred,” the statement read. “The death of Michael Schuls was, and continues to be, devastating for everyone who knew him, including all of us at Florence Hardwoods.”

OSHA cited the company for 47 violations of federal safety and health regulations, with five of those being the “most serious violations the agency issues.” The company has been placed in the agency’s Severe Violator Enforcement Program, which concentrates resources on inspecting employers that have demonstrated “indifference” to following federal safety standards.

The investigation into Florence Hardwoods came during a push over the last two years to loosen regulations governing what jobs minors can do in the workplace. Lawmakers in 14 states — including Wisconsin — have proposed rolling back child labor laws, according to the nonprofit Economic Policy Institute.

Since 2018, the U.S. Labor Department says it’s seen a 69 percent increase nationally in cases of children being illegally employed since 2018.

The number of federal child labor violations in Wisconsin has ebbed and flowed since 2018, according to the department’s Wage and Hour Division. The Labor Department identified 64 violations in 2018, 157 in 2019, 69 in 2020, 113 in 2021 and 92 in 2022.

In February, a Wisconsin-based sanitation company was fined $1.5 million for employing more than 100 children who federal investigators said were working in dangerous conditions cleaning meat packing plants.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with a statement from Florence Hardwoods.