A lumber company in northeastern Wisconsin has been fined nearly $300,000 by federal safety regulators for continuing to expose workers to amputation and other dangers years after an employee was killed on the job.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) announced on January 9 that it fined Tigerton Lumber Company $283,608 on December 22. The agency said that an inspection last July uncovered violations of multiple federal safety regulations, ranging from inadequate guards on machines, stairs without railings, conveyors not fenced off or marked as prohibited areas, open electrical boxes, and a lack of signs warning employees not to enter dangerous areas.

The inspection was part of an OSHA program to monitor severe violators. The company was designated as such after 46-year-old employee Scott Spiegel was killed while working with logging equipment in 2018.

Another sawmill in northern Wisconsin agreed in September to pay nearly $191,000 in U.S. Labor Department penalties, after a teenage employee was killed on the job. Sixteen-year-old Michael Schuls died in July after he became pinned in a wood-stacking machine at Florence Hardwoods.

Schuls was attempting to unjam stacks of small boards when the conveyor belt he was standing on moved and he fell into the machine. According to police reports, surveillance footage showed that Schuls did not press the machine’s safety shut-off button before stepping onto the conveyor belt. Roughly 17 minutes passed before a coworker discovered him stuck in the machine.

The boy was later brought to a pediatric hospital in Milwaukee where he died two days later. His autopsy identified the cause of death as traumatic asphyxiation. The death came at a time when Republican lawmakers in Wisconsin were embracing legislation to loosen child labor laws.

Other states have passed measures to let underage children work in more hazardous occupations, for more hours on school nights and in expanded roles. Wisconsin Republicans backed a proposal to allow kids as young as 14 to serve alcohol in bars and restaurants.

State and federal labor agencies have been investigating several accidents in Wisconsin to determine whether workplace safety or child labor laws were violated.

Most work in sawmills and logging is prohibited for minors, but in Wisconsin, children 16 and older are allowed to work in planing mills like the one Schuls was stacking lumber in when the accident occurred.

An ensuing U.S. Department of Labor investigation of Florence Hardwoods found that three children ages 15 to 16 were hurt at the sawmill between November 2021 and March 2023.

The sawmill also employed nine children between the ages of 14 and 17 to illegally run machines such as saws, the investigation found. The investigation also determined that seven child employees between 14 and 17 worked outside legally permitted hours.

According to its settlement, Florence Hardwoods would pay the labor department about $191,000. In exchange, the department will lift its restrictions on the facility, which prohibit the sawmill from selling anything produced using illegal child labor.

The agreement also prevented Florence Hardwoods from hiring anyone under 16, and required it to notify the labor department if it hired anyone between the ages of 16 and 18. Employees between those ages must be treated as apprentices or student learners. Federal law severely limits those employees’ exposure to dangerous tasks and requires that such work be conducted under the supervision of an experienced worker.

Florence Hardwoods also was required to place warning stickers on all dangerous equipment and post signs visible from 10 feet away warning people that anyone under 18 was not allowed in the facility’s sawmill and planer mill. The facility must also submit to unannounced inspections.

Two months later in December, OSHA proposed fining Florence Hardwoods an additional $1.4 million for numerous violations of federal safety and health regulations, including for “the most egregious violations the agency issues.”

OSHA said it cited Florence Hardwoods for eight willful, six repeat, 29 serious, and four other-than-serious violations of federal safety and health regulations. The agency calculated a $1,313,204 penalty in the Schuls death, and a $68,752 penalty in the companion case.

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

MI Staff and AP Staff

Andrew Angelov, Andrey Sha, Marina Grigorivna, Nina Drozdowa (via Shutterstock)