Auto parts molder Woodbridge Group faces $271,000 in potential fines from federal safety officials for 13 fires during a two-year period at its Clayton, Ohio, factory.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Sept. 6 that the company, which also does business as Hematite Inc., did not properly train staff and endangered workers fighting fires on vacuum forming lines at the factory.
"Our inspectors found Hematite's management preferred that workers combat fires with extinguishers, lessening repair costs and production time, rather than allowing sprinklers to activate. This practice endangered workers," said Ken Montgomery, OSHA area director in Cincinnati.
"The company must immediately review its emergency action plans and the process for storing and handling flammable materials," he said. "Incorporating training and protective measures will help minimize fires and protect workers on the job."
OSHA said it began its investigation following a referral from the local fire department, which responded to repeated blazes at the facility from June 2020 to June 2022. It said the company did not properly train employees on "initial stage fire identification."
Hematite faces one willful violation and nine serious violations, the agency said.
The parent company Woodbridge, which is based in Mississauga, Ontario, said it has been working to improve safety at the facility since it bought Hematite last year.
"Since acquiring Hematite from bankruptcy in 2021, we have been actively implementing numerous safety measures in the facilities to align with Woodbridge's world-class health and safety programs," the company said. "While any fire event is unacceptable, we are continually working with OSHA and local fire officials to ensure we have protective measures in place to assure a safe work environment for our teammates on the job.
"Maintaining a safe work environment for our teammates is our No. 1 priority," it said.
OSHA said polyethylene in the company's ovens would easily ignite and be difficult to extinguish.
The proposed OSHA fines include $145,000 for a "willful" violation, one of its most serious, for a series of three fires this year that reignited multiple times and that staff battled without having a clear emergency exit route, the agency said in detailed allegations.
In the three instances — on March 4, April 13 and June 7 —the factory experienced fires on vacuum forming lines.
The agency said that in each case, maintenance staff were not trained to "fight a fire that was larger than an incipient level fire," putting themselves at risk.
"The fire was over the employees' heads, and there was no clear path of escape as employees were on a guardrail enclosed ramp next to the oven," OSHA said, describing each of those three fires.
Two of the blazes reignited multiple times, the agency said.
The nine violations OSHA classified as "serious" included having obstructed exit routes that went through locked doors, not assessing personal protective equipment and several different lockout/tagout violations, including not properly training employees on those procedures.
Woodbridge has its automotive unit headquarters in Troy, Mich., and employs more than 7,500 workers in 50 locations across 10 countries.
The company is also active in markets for commercial, recreational, packaging, health care and building products.
It makes a variety of interior and exterior auto components, including seating systems, as well as foams for under vehicle shields and bumper assemblies.