OSHA Fines Wisconsin Plant $1.1M

WAUSAU, Wis. (AP) -- The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration is seeking $1.14 million in penalties from a Wisconsin whey processing plant cited for violating federal workplace safety regulations.

The proposed penalties are the second highest OSHA has sought this year, Brad Mitchell, a spokesman for the U.S. Labor Department in Chicago, said Monday.

Milk Specialties Global of Whitehall was cited after a December inspection prompted by a complaint alleging safety hazards at the plant, Mitchell said. Among other things, the company was accused of allowing untrained workers without protection from various hazards to do maintenance in liquid whey storage tanks and driers that had power equipment.

"We have had five fatalities due to confined space entry issues in Wisconsin in the past two years and there is no reason this has to happen. These are preventable fatalities and employers need to understand that," Mitchell said.

Milk Specialties leased the Whitehall plant, which was built in the 1940s, and opened it in October 2008 to convert liquid whey, a byproduct of making cheese, into powdered whey in a process that involves spraying and heating the liquid, said OSHA Area Director Mark Hysell in Eau Claire.

The powdered whey is shipped to other facilities, some of which feed it to calves, Hysell said.

Milk Specialties Chief Executive Trevor Tomkins said the company was "completely surprised and dismayed" by OSHA's citations and proposed penalties. He called them unfair given the plant employs eight workers and there's only been one injury.

"We will be working fully with OSHA to resolve this matter," Tomkins said in a statement issued from the company's headquarters in Carpentersville, Ill. "Milk Specialties has and always will be committed to the safety of its employees."

Mitchell said the company had 15 days to challenge the citations or comply with them.

According to OSHA, most of the proposed penalties involved 17 willful violations that were committed with "plain indifference or intentional disregard" for employee safety and health.

The company also was cited for 17 serious violations, which included uninspected fire extinguishers and a lack of lighting and signs for exits, and four repeat violations, which included making sure floor and wall openings were properly guarded.

Milk Specialties, which has six plants in Wisconsin and Minnesota, has been inspected by OSHA 15 times since 1974, most recently in 2006 and 2008. It received previous citations resulting from many of the same violations cited in the most recent inspection, the federal agency said in a statement.

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