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Northern Wisconsin sawmill fires back at federal officials over safety practices

Company says it was 'mischaracterized' by the U.S. Labor Department following major fine

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Patrick Semansky/AP Photo

A northern Wisconsin sawmill is pushing back against the U.S. Labor Department’s characterization of its safety practices following the death of a 16-year-old employee, contending some teens were working at the mill through school apprenticeship programs.

Florence Hardwoods was fined almost $1.4 million by the Department of Labor for workplace safety violations earlier this week. That’s after a federal court in September ordered the company to pay nearly $200,000 in penalties for child labor law violations.

The penalties stemmed from federal investigations into the accident that led to the death of 16-year-old Michael Schuls this summer. According to federal officials, Schuls became trapped in a stick stacker machine as he tried to unjam it on June 29. He died at a local hospital two days later.

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This week’s penalties were the result of an investigation by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and the fines in September were the result of an investigation by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division. Federal officials said the company terminated all of its underage employees following Schuls’ death.

Sawmill fires back at federal officials

In a more than 500-word statement Thursday, Florence Hardwoods said the Labor Department “mischaracterized” the events that took place in its facility.

“We did not willfully nor deliberately violate any rules or regulations,” the statement said. “We will move forward with the OSHA abatement process and address any deficiencies in our safety program, but we will not accept what we consider to be unfair and politically motivated actions on the part of the DOL.”

The Florence County company said it did not “intentionally” put minors in harm’s way and disagrees with federal officials saying it allowed minors to operate dangerous machinery and perform maintenance on equipment without training on safety procedures.

Florence Hardwoods said it worked with the local high school to provide job opportunities for students. The company says the teens, including Schuls, were doing work in the company’s planing mill, which it contends is legally allowed.

“Several of our youth workers were associated with what we believed were formal apprenticeship programs through the state and local high school, as well as internships and ‘school to work’ programs set up with the local high school and Sheriff’s Department,” the company’s statement reads.

The company did not make any officials available for an interview, and the School District of Florence County administration could not be reached for comment Thursday.

According to a course offering book from the district, the school does offer a youth apprenticeship course to high school seniors, allowing them to work 10 to 15 hours per week. It also offers a construction trades course where “students may be placed in a workplace learning site.”

Florence County Sheriff Teresa Chrisman said the sheriff’s office does not have an apprenticeship or internship partnership with Florence Hardwoods.

State Deparment of Workforce Development weighs-in

In a statement, Wisconsin Department of Workforce Development Communications Director John Dipko said Schuls did not have a work permit at the time of the accident in June, as he was 16 and the state previously waived the requirement for 16- and 17-year-olds to have work permits. Schuls was issued a work permit in 2021, but it expired when he turned 16.

Dipko said the Northwoods Youth Apprenticeship Consortium had coordinated apprenticeship placements at Florence Hardwoods during the 2022-23 school year. But he said the state agency directed the consortium to suspend those placements on July 7, after Schuls’ death.

The Department of Workforce Development’s Equal Rights Division agrees with the federal court order that required Florence Hardwoods to comply with child labor laws, Dipko said.

“DWD’s Worker’s Compensation Division has notified the employer it is subject to damages for child labor violations under state law, and the employer has requested a hearing with the state,” he added.

DOL says sawmill has history of injuries, child labor violations

In a statement Thursday, OSHA Assistant Secretary Doug Parker said the agency stands by its findings, and is prepared to establish the facts of its investigation in court. He also said this is not the first time Florence Hardwoods and two other companies under the same ownership have been cited for a lack of machine safety procedures.

“The Occupational Safety and Health Administration conducted thorough investigations at Florence Hardwoods because a teenager died needlessly and tragically,” Parker said. “Our investigation uncovered serious safety violations at Florence Hardwoods.”

An earlier statement from the Labor Department said their investigation found 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 Florence Hardwoods and companies under the same ownership have suffered serious injuries due to lockout failures, including a fatality in 2019, according to OSHA.

The investigation into child labor law violations by the Department of Labor found the company had employed nine children, aged 14 to 17, to illegally operate machinery, such as a chop saw, rip saw and other automated machines used to process lumber, which federal law considers hazardous occupations for workers under 18. Employees who were 14 and 15 years old were also scheduled to work outside legally permitted hours.

According to the investigators, three children, ages 15 to 16, suffered injuries in November 2021, July 2022 and March 2023, including one teen who was injured on two separate occasions.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include a response from the state Department of Workforce Development.

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