It wasn’t so long ago that the state of Georgia was producing 85% of the U.S’s carpets, and nearly half of all new carpets in the world. Today, the numbers are less clear. During the recession of 2008, the American carpeting industry took a significant hit, due to drastically reduced construction and remodeling, paired with a shifting public preference for hardwood floors. However, the city of Dalton considers itself the “carpet capital of the world” to this day, and not without reason.
Carpets are still big business in and around Dalton, and tens of thousands of Georgia residents make their living in carpet mills, producing soft floor coverings for homes, businesses, and export. It’s dangerous work, often much more dangerous than it needs to be, and the Stoddard Firm is committed to helping the victims of carpet mill accidents find the justice they deserve.
Georgia is home to dozens of carpet and rug manufacturers, many of them clustered around Dalton, but two companies in particular deserve special attention for their pure scale. Shaw Industries is the third most prolific manufacturing employer in the state, followed shortly by Mohawk Industries at number five. Between them, they control the working conditions of a whopping 11,000 Georgia residents.
Like so many big manufacturers, both of them have repeatedly, and often tragically, failed at keeping those employees safe.
On Halloween of 2017, a piece of carpet got stuck in a machine in a Shaw plant in Dalton. Workers tied a rope around the carpet and tossed the rope’s end to another worker standing on an overhead catwalk, so that he could pull the carpet free. The worker on the catwalk fumbled the catch, and in the brief, instinctive moment of trying to save it, he leaned down, trapping his head between a moving machine part and a stationary beam. He died at the scene.
OSHA fined Shaw a mere $12,934, in spite of the fact that this was the second case of a worker getting caught in a Shaw machine inside of a week. At a sister plant in Chatsworth, an employee’s arm had just been dragged into a roller and crushed.
The OSHA report for the catwalk death also pointed out fall risks in the workspace — something Shaw should already have had occasion to address. The previous year, an employee at the Shaw plant in Cartersville was killed when he fell into a machine during what investigators described as routine maintenance. He had just become a father.
Likewise, Mohawk mills have seen repeated deaths and injuries involving faulty or unshielded machines. In September of 2017, a worker died in what OSHA declared an industrial accident at a Mohawk plant in Chatsworth. Though reported details of exactly how she died are sketchy, there was an unguarded machine involved, which OSHA ordered the plant to fix, as well as imposing another $12,934 fine.
Less than seven months later, another worker died in the same mill, when a roller broke free of its machine and struck him on the head. The quick succession of the two deaths did result in a higher OSHA fine of $97,560. Unfortunately, even more substantial penalties are rarely enough to motivate companies to invest in worker safety.
Mohawk factory premises have also proven dangerous in ways that don’t involve machinery. Back in 2003, a police officer was killed when a Mohawk plant parking gate struck him through his windshield, and as recently as September of 2019, a propane tank started a fire in a Mohawk plant in Calhoun, injuring a worker. Firefighters extinguished the blaze quickly, or so they thought. The embers later reignited, five days after the initial incident.
Many Carpet Mill Deaths and Disabilities Are Never Identified as Such
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that, throughout Georgia, there were about 600 nonfatal carpet mill injuries in 2018, and about 700 in 2017. That’s a lot of needless pain, and a lot of lives altered forever, but in all likelihood, it’s only a fraction of the truth.
In addition to heavy machinery, American carpet factory workers are routinely exposed to toxic chemicals, including phthalates, 4-nonylphenol, and PFAS. Over time, these toxins lead to cancer, heart disease, strokes, asthma, immune deficiencies, and reproductive harm. Even though employers have just as much of a duty to avoid poisoning people as to avoid crushing their limbs between carpet rollers, it’s much easier to brush off the responsibility for poisonings. Illnesses like cancer and heart disease can have many different causes, and sometimes no obvious cause at all. Consequently, they’re rarely traced back to the victim’s workplace, no matter how negligently poisons are being used there.
The Georgia carpet industry has been called out in other ways for its use of toxins, however. In June of 2019, Shaw and Mohawk, among other carpet manufacturers, were sued for introducing PFCs into the groundwater, poisoning people downriver in Alabama.
Lawyers for the carpet industry argued that the Dalton utility system should be held responsible for failing to filter toxins out of the factories’ waste water. The real question, however, is why carpet manufacturers continue to use these toxins at all, risking the lives of thousands, starting with their own employees. One investigation by the Center for Environmental Health found that European-made carpets contained almost none of the poisons found abundantly in American carpets.
Clearly there are ways to make carpets without them.
Injury Statistics Don’t Tell the Whole Story
Illnesses from chemical exposure are supposedly included in injury statistics, but even if one disregards these and focuses only on more obvious trauma, the numbers are still dubious.
Many workplaces, especially factories, use incentive techniques to extend “accident-free” stretches of time, offering pizza parties and similar rewards for meeting predetermined safety goals. Ostensibly, these incentive programs are supposed to improve safety, but in practice, they actually make workplaces more dangerous by reducing accident reporting. Workers don’t choose to get hurt because they aren’t being adequately incentivized to avoid it, but they may keep quiet about mild-to-moderate injuries to avoid denying their coworkers a reward they’ve been looking forward to.
If reward systems are ineffective at keeping workers quiet, some employers will turn to illegal threats and intimidation tactics. As a result, reported injury rates tend to be lower than actual injury rates, sometimes dramatically so.
In addition to underreporting within workplaces, federal and state reporting systems aren’t always thorough either. For example, the BLS, the same organization curating those statistics of 600 or 700 yearly injuries, only reported a single death in 2017, and another one in 2018, throughout Georgia’s carpet mills.
Keen-eyed readers already know this isn’t true. As noted above, Shaw and Mohawk each lost at least one Georgia employee to a machine accident in 2017. Both deaths received OSHA investigations and even local news coverage, but apparently not the notice of the BLS.
Maimed Hands and Arms Are Some of the Most Common Carpet Manufacturing Injuries
When carpet mill employees survive accidents, they’re often left with disfiguring and debilitating injuries. No part of the body is safe from a hazardous industrial working environment — one woman who was pulled into a machine in a Lexmark carpet factory in 2016 was extricated with muscle damage to her leg, for example.
However, the nature of carpet factory work more often puts hands and arms in the line of fire. Shaw and Mohawk have both cost workers fingers and parts of fingers. One Shaw employee also suffered second degree burns to the hands, arms, and face while trying to clear a machine clog.
The pattern holds across other carpet companies too. At Engineered Floors, another carpet company started by the same founder as Shaw Industries, two employees suffered serious finger injuries inside of two months in 2018. The first got his hand stuck between a conveyer belt and a pair of scissors while cutting string off a roller, losing two fingertips. The second lost a thumb while clearing a jamb.
Hand injuries not only affect a person’s ability to continue manufacturing work, but can significantly limit their other career and hobby options. While these kinds of accidents may seem minor compared with the horrific fatalities that also take place in carpet mills, the cost to the survivors should not be underrated.
Machinery Designers Share Responsibility for Worker Safety Under the Hierarchy of Controls
Employers and property owners are always responsible for providing a safe environment for workers and guests. Carpet manufacturers have a great deal to answer for when it comes to workplace safety, but there are other entities that also play key roles in factory safety and should not be ignored.
The designers and installers of factory equipment have a duty to make sure their products and services do not put anyone in unnecessary danger. For example, if factory management disables a machine’s safety features to speed up production, or does not arrange for needed maintenance, any resulting injuries are clearly the factory’s fault. However, if the machine was designed without needed safety features in the first place, or if it was installed incorrectly by a third-party company, then the design or installation company is at least partially at fault too.
The hierarchy of controls — arguably the most effective model for workplace safety — emphasizes the importance of minimizing potential dangers at the engineering level.
As explained by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), workplace hazards should be addressed using the most effective methods first. Only if top-tier methods are impossible to apply should workplaces rely on lower-tier methods.
The five recognized methods of accident prevention are:
- Elimination. In other words, getting rid of an unnecessary hazard, such as a rickety warehouse shelf, altogether.
- This means replacing a hazard with a less dangerous version of itself. Phasing out toxic chemicals in favor of nontoxic or less-toxic products would be an example of substitution.
- Engineering controls. This is where equipment designers come in. Making machines as safe to use as possible, with features like hand guards, automatic shutoffs, lockout mechanisms, and maintenance access points that minimize fall risks, can prevent many disasters before they happen.
- Administrative controls. These are company safety policies. Unlike incentive programs, teaching and enforcing rules for using machines correctly, cutting the power before maintenance, and working with a partner or spotter, can make a real difference in keeping employees safe.
- Personal Protective Equipment. All the way at the bottom of the list are devices like safety glasses, hardhats, and steel-toed shoes. While providing safety equipment is the very least an employer can do, and wearing it is always a good idea, it should be considered an emergency last line of defense, for when all else fails.
With engineering controls ranking as highly as they do, it’s worth scrutinizing the design and installation of any machine involved in an accident.
The Stoddard Firm Holds Both Factory Owners and Equipment Designers Accountable
If you’ve been injured or lost a loved one to an industrial accident in a carpet mill, The Stoddard Firm can help. We have expertise and experience in premises liability, employer liability, and products liability, which allows us to look at an accident from all relevant angles.
We’ll examine the responsibilities of both the carpet manufacturer and the equipment provider, and explain them in ways judges and juries understand. We’ll also look at the way the accident has affected you, both in terms of immediate trauma and the long-term impact it will likely have on your earning power and quality of life. We’ll make sure the full gravity of your loss is felt in court, so that you get the full compensation you deserve.
To get started with your free consultation, give us a call at 678-RESULT, or reach out through our online chat function, to talk to a live lawyer about your case today.