Last November, the roof caved in at Woodgrain Millwork in Prineville after heavy snow. In the second of two reports, we look at working conditions at the mill. Former Woodgrain workers describe an environment where building maintenance was lax and the roof leaked for years.
Before the roof collapse at Woodgrain mill last November, former mill workers told OPB the roof had problems.
Adams: Mainly water leaks.
Dennis Adams is a retired forklift mechanic.
Adams: In this area where the roof fell in the water would pool up in the floor. It would make a pool probably 40 feet in diameter.
One worker named the pool, “Lake Woodgrain.” Tod Halsey, a forklift driver, says there was no way to drive around it.
Halsey: I remember times that the puddle was six inches deep. Our brakes were getting wet on our forklifts. They won’t stop if your brakes get wet.
With every rain or snow, former workers say water leaked onto people, saws, and sometimes, electrical panels.
OPB obtained Woodgrain’s internal safety committee minutes from 2010 that show that roof leaks came up as a problem even then.
Tim Chandler, who chaired the committee, says the committee discussed leaks often.
Chandler: Many, many, many times.
But Chandler adds he did not see the leaks as posing structural threat. He has a neurological condition that affects his voice.
Chandler: No one there, including me, had any idea that the structural integrity of the support system had been in any way undermined.
Woodgrain employees reported safety concerns through a system called “AIM HI” cards. Safety committee member Peggy Murphy says at one meeting, this was management's response:
Murphy: ' Tell your people to quit filling out AIM HI cards about the roof. We’re not going to fix it.' ”
Woodgrain declined OPB’s requests for in-person interviews.
But in an email, Greg Easton, VP of Woodgrain Millwork wrote, “Safety is a perpetual priority for all of our operations and we work every day to improve.”
Halsey: They talked a lot of safety, but they never would fix stuff like they should.
Again, Tod Halsey.
Halsey:They should have been patching holes in the roofs all over the whole plant.
Tuck Green worked in maintenance for fifteen years before taking a different job at Woodgrain.
Green: The buildings were falling down around themselves.They cut the maintenance crew out.
Sam Rufener, supervisor in the cut shops, says maintenance was short-staffed. So his crew did a lot of things that would normally fall to maintenance.
Rufener: I saw things that needed done, and we mostly did it after hours. I was scolded often. I said I we were doing stuff that needs to be done.
On top of leaks, workers had to deal with the cold inside the mill. Woodgrain’s policy stated that heat was "for manufacturing purposes, not for comfort."
Sanislo: Even when it was zero degrees.
That’s Mary Sanislo, who worked in the cut shop. Workers wore thick layers to keep warm. They say cutting lumber requires dexterity, and that work was more was challenging in bulky clothes.
Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected the mill after the collapse, in response to an anonymous complaint. OSHA did not cite the company.
There’s no state OSHA rule that requires a workplace to provide heat. But there are rules around maintaining dry floors and keeping water away from electrical panels.
OSHA noted that there were leaks in the roof. But the OSHA inspector’s focus was on the roof collapse. Michael Wood is the state OSHA administrator.
Wood: With hindsight and the advantage of reviewing it after the fact that perhaps I prefer that he’d asked a few more questions. But I don’t think that translates into he didn’t do his job. It’s more of an acknowledgment that we can always do a little bit more thorough job than we did.
Wood says that with limited resources, the tradeoff of digging deeper at one workplace might mean that OSHA inspects fewer workplaces overall.
Peggy Murphy, who worked at the mill for twenty years, says she feels wronged.
Murphy: You think about all this documentation that these people had, year after year after year after year. But they’re going to send you in there knowing that roof was bad? To me, that’s like, this business that product, this money is bigger than you.
After the collapse, Woodgrain shut down most of the mill and laid off nearly two hundred workers.
Copyright 2015 OPB.