Former Woodgrain Millwork employees paint a picture of a work environment where building maintenance was lax and the roof leaked for years.
- The Roof Collapse
- A History Of Leaks
- Years Of Worker Complaints
- ‘This Inspection Could Have Been More Thorough.’
On Nov. 13, 2014, Tod Halsey noticed something strange about one part of the roof under the cut shop at Woodgrain Millwork. It was sagging between two beams.
“It was literally bowing,” said Halsey, a forklift driver who worked at the mill for 28 years. “It looked like it was smiling.”
“I told supervisors,” he said. “They came out and looked at it and said it would be all right.”
The sagging roof troubled Halsey, but he said even he would not have guessed what would come.
That night, heavy snow blanketed the Central Oregon town of Prineville. By 6 a.m. Nov. 14, many mill workers couldn’t get out of their driveways in time for work. Later, many would say how lucky they were to be housebound by snow.
Halsey was one who made it in to work. At the start of his shift, he noticed the same section of the roof drooping even more. He said he again alerted a boss.
As Halsey and a supervisor were returning for a second look at the roof, he said, he heard a loud pop over an area where lumber was cut and processed, called the “cut shop.”
A major section of Woodgrain Mill’s roof started to collapse.
Next he heard a long, metal groan. He looked up and watched as the roof began to tear in two above him.
Halsey saw a momentary flash of gray sky as the roof pulled apart, and then everything around him turned pitch black. He was enveloped in dust. He heard gushing water and shouting.
A section of the roof larger than a football field collapsed about 30 yards in front of him. If the roof had come down 15 seconds later, Halsey said, he would have been underneath.
As it turned out, nobody was hurt when the roof fell that day. But Halsey didn’t know that at the time. He would spend the next hour beaming the lights of his forklift into the darkness, searching for his co-workers.
The Roof Collapse
Workers interviewed for this story paint a picture of an environment at Woodgrain where building maintenance was lax and the roof leaked for years. The former Woodgrain workers described what they saw as a number of unsafe conditions and potential safety hazards at the mill, even before the roof collapsed.
When the former employees talk about the day the roof fell, they tend to say similar things.
“If it happened 10, 15 minutes earlier we might have been going to funerals,” said Henry Helmholtz, who worked at Woodgrain 32 years.
“I’m really surprised that somebody wasn’t killed,” said Mary Sanislo, who worked in the cut shop.
On most days, about 16 people worked in the cut shop area. A key piece of equipment was frozen when the workers who did make it in that day arrived at the start of the shift, so cut shop workers were in a different part of the mill as the machine thawed.
Woodgrain officials said they could not have predicted that the large section of roof would fall to the ground so suddenly and dramatically.
“Clearly the building is not new, but I had no reason to believe the integrity of the building was in doubt,” Woodgrain Millwork Vice President Greg Easton said in an email.
The statement from Easton is one of the few comments Woodgrain provided to OPB about its operations. He responded via email, but declined multiple requests for in-person or telephone interviews. Easton did not answer detailed follow-up questions, via email, about concerns raised by former workers.
OPB also contacted Benjamin Barron, former director of operations at Woodgrain’s Prineville facility. He left the company a few months after the roof collapse. “All I can say is Woodgrain was a good company to work for,” Barron said in a brief phone conversation.
Oregon’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated three days after the roof collapse, arriving on Nov. 17 in response to an anonymous complaint. In the OHSA report, the inspector wrote, “one of the buildings in the facility had collapsed after snow fall.” Oregon OSHA confirmed with the company that the roof had a history of leaks, but did not find that the roof over the cut shop had any preexisting signs that it might collapse. OSHA did not cite the company.
OPB interviewed 23 former Woodgrain workers about safety, obtained minutes of internal company safety committee meetings, and spoke to former members of that committee. Of those, 19 were laid off before or after the mill closed, two had retired and two had decided to leave the company.
A History Of Leaks
Many of the workers’ concerns resulted from water falling through the roof and creating safety hazards on the ground. Some workers said they didn’t expect the roof to collapse, but they described visible holes and roof insulation falling in parts of the mill.
Headquartered in Idaho, Woodgrain is a global company known for manufacturing moldings, doors and windows. It owns five mills similar to the one in Prineville, and many more manufacturing facilities across the U.S. After the collapse, Woodgrain shut down most Prineville operations and laid off nearly 200 employees.
Woodgrain describes itself as “one of the largest millwork operations today” with eight sub-companies, including one in Chile.
In 2004, Woodgrain bought the Prineville operation. The mill was a massive, 14-acre facility with 257 employees.
When asked about the condition of the roof, Easton, the Woodgrain VP, wrote in an email, “We have maintained property insurance since operating the facility and met the expectations of our insurer.”
But when it rained or snowed, workers said, the roof leaked throughout the mill—not just under the area that collapsed.
Each of the 23 former Woodgrain workers and supervisors interviewed for this story described a roof riddled with leaks that dripped on workers and mill equipment.
In fact, Oregon OSHA found that the day before the collapse, water was leaking onto an electrical panel near the area where the roof fell. “Maintenance personnel covered the electrical panel with plastic,” the OSHA report stated.
“The water was just pouring over it,” said cut-shop worker Sanislo.
OPB obtained Woodgrain safety committee minutes from 2010 that show roof leaks came up as a problem even then. A former employee who was on the committee provided a copy of the minutes to OPB, but asked not to be identified.
Another source, who also asked for anonymity, provided minutes from a safety committee meeting in 2011 that mentioned “slip hazards,” “puddles” and “roof leaks.”
Peggy Murphy managed inventory at Woodgrain. She described leaks throughout the building, and onto electrical equipment.
“It was a downpour on some of those machines. Like if you were standing in a shower,” she said.
Workers dealt with the leaks as best they could. They’d place buckets at their feet so they wouldn’t get soaked.
Brian Godat, a forklift driver, said he sliced a 50-gallon bucket in half and placed it sideways on two sawhorses to catch water at stairs, not far from the cut shop where the roof collapsed. During heavy rain, workers said, the bucket would fill every few hours.
Workers said they hung plastic sheets above cut saws to redirect the water.
According to former workers, maintenance staff instructed them to mark problematic leaks with red tape. Sam Rufener, who supervised the cut shop, remembers the red tape on several electrical panels. He said those leaks were not fixed.
Workers also described one high-traffic area where a 3-inch puddle formed. It was in the cut shop, where the roof later collapsed.
“It would make a pool in that one area probably 40 feet in diameter,” said Dennis Adams, a forklift mechanic who worked at the mill for 25 years. He retired last year before the collapse.
Forklift driver Tony McLain named it “Lake Woodgrain.” Adams said drivers had to drive through it, and it sometimes made the forklift brakes ineffective.
Oregon OSHA provided OPB with its policies around workplace maintenance. One policy says, “The floor of every work room shall be maintained in a clean and, so far as possible, a dry condition.”
When it comes to equipment used to provide electricity like electrical panels, OHSA policy says, “Unless identified for use in the operating environment no conductors or equipment shall be located in damp or wet locations.”
In addition to leaks, workers had to deal with cold temperatures inside the mill.
OPB obtained Woodgrain’s temperature policy from a former supervisor who asked not to be named. It states that “heat is used for manufacturing purposes only and not for comfort.”
Workers said they bundled in thick layers and put chemical hand warmers inside gloves and boots to keep warm. They said grading or cutting lumber was challenging in bulky clothes, because that type of work requires dexterity.
There’s no OSHA rule that requires workplaces to provide heat.
Woodgrain did not respond to specific email questions about the roof leaks, puddles on the floor, or its heating policy.
In his email, Woodgrain VP Easton wrote about overall safety policies at the company: “Safety is a perpetual priority for all of our operations and we work every day to improve it through policies, training, internal reviews or audits and employee committees and participation.”
“I don’t know anything firsthand about the condition of the roof pre-collapse,” Easton wrote. He is based in Idaho, and said he took responsibility for the Prineville operation in September 2014, not long before the roof collapsed.
Years Of Worker Complaints
Former employees said they regularly filed complaints about the roof through a safety reporting system called “AIM HI,” short for “Analysis, Investigate, Meetings, Housekeeping and Interact.”
The safety committee reviewed the AIM HI cards workers submitted. OPB spoke to four people who served on that committee at different times.
The roof was discussed “many, many, many times,” said Tim Chandler, night shift superintendent and former chairman of the safety committee.
“I can’t tell you how many times a month I got AIM HI cards on the roof,” said Willia Bucholz, a former member of Woodgrain’s safety committee. “But it was a big deal.”
Murphy, who did inventory and tech support, was also on the safety committee. She said that at one meeting Woodgrain management told the committee, “Tell your people to quit filling out AIM HI cards about the roof. We’re not going to fix it. It’s not going to happen.”
Chandler said the safety committee discussed water dripping on workers and equipment, and potential slip or trip hazards. But, he added, no one discussed the water coming through the roof as potentially compromising the building.
“I’m absolutely certain that no one there, including me, had any idea that the structural integrity of the structural support system was weak or undermined,” Chandler said.
Rufener, who supervised the cut shop under the area where the roof collapsed, worked at the mill for 30 years. His workers describe him as a good listener who looked out for their best interests. When he talks about cut shop workers, he calls them “my people.”
On the day the roof collapsed, Rufener was on vacation, elk hunting. Had he been at work, he said, he would have turned on a heater the night before to keep equipment from freezing in the cut shop. And, he said, he’s keenly aware that because equipment was frozen, workers weren’t under the roof that day.
“The roof came all the way down to the floor right where people were usually working,” Rufener said.
Both Chandler and Rufener said that problems at the mill were sometimes neglected because the maintenance department was short-staffed. Several workers said that, over the years, Woodgrain cut the maintenance crew from around 20 workers to about six.
Workers and supervisors described ongoing frustration with the lack of maintenance. “They didn’t want to deal with a lot of things about the building itself,” Murphy said. “The machinery? If they could fix it, then yeah they did but the building and the structure of it – whether it be the floors or the wall or the ceiling – they didn’t care.”
Sawdust would accumulate on the roof of the mill, several workers said. Woodgrain did not remove accumulated sawdust from the roof for years, according to several workers, who told OPB that when other companies owned the mill, sawdust was swept from the roof annually.
Tuck Green, who worked in maintenance for 15 years, estimated that a dump truck load of sawdust was removed from the roof every year. Adams, the forklift mechanic, said he used to help with sawdust removal every summer. The last time he remembers the roof being swept was 2008. He left the company in 2014.
Occasionally workers were sent up to the roof to patch leaks.
Godat, the forklift driver, said he worked on the roof five or six times alone or with one other person in 2014. He was frustrated by how few leaks he was able to fix, given the scope of the challenge.
Oregon OSHA: ‘This Inspection Could Have Been More Thorough.’
The anonymous complaint that brought Oregon OSHA out to the mill after the collapse said, “The day before the employer was aware that the roof was unstable, and leaking water, in the building and on an electrical panel.”
The inspector’s visit was narrowly focused on the roof collapse so, state OSHA officials said, he was not responsible for investigating safety overall. But they also said that during any site visit inspectors can probe about potential safety concerns.
The inspector did not ask detailed questions about the leaks or potential hazards in an environment where water was falling onto workers, equipment and the concrete floor, according to OSHA. He did not ask how long the roof had been leaking, or if it had ever leaked onto electrical panels in the past.
“When I look at this case there are some things that I think, with hindsight and the advantage of reviewing it after the fact, that perhaps I prefer that he’d asked a few more questions,” said state OSHA Administrator Michael Wood. “But I don’t think that translates to 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.”
OSHA declined OPB’s multiple requests to speak directly with the inspector, Hank Larson.
Easton, Woodgrain’s vice president, and Barron, then-director of operations, were two of the three employer representatives present for the inspection, along with someone from human resources, according to the state OSHA report.
During the inspection, Woodgrain managers told the inspector that the roof that collapsed had a history of leaks, and that water was leaking onto an electrical panel before the collapse, according to the OSHA report.
Most of the mill shut down after the collapse, so few employees were on site during the inspection. OSHA can interview employees at home. But this time, the inspector didn’t.
“This inspection could have been more thorough,” Wood said. “With the ability to look at this in retrospect, it certainly should have been more thorough. He should have talked to some additional folks.”
In addition to the company managers, Larson interviewed two employees at the work site before closing the case. Both told him that the roof leaked.
Before the post-roof-collapse visit, the last time Oregon OSHA inspected the mill was in 2010. At the time, OSHA cited the company for five violations. Four involved equipment at the mill and one citation was for failing to report a workplace injury that had hospitalized a worker for four nights.
Oregon OSHA says it has limited staff. The agency has resources to visit just about 3 percent of Oregon workplaces annually. The tradeoff of spending more time at one site could mean that inspectors visit fewer workplaces overall.
And in this case, nobody was injured or died when the roof came down.
“The fact that there was a potential fatality does not elevate it to the same level of investigation that we would conduct if there was an actual fatality,” Wood said. “I think the clearest difference is that we would have done additional interviews.”
Despite the conditions, most workers said that they enjoyed their jobs and that co-workers were like family. But some also look back in anger at the way the company treated them.
Murphy, who worked at the plant for 20 years, said she feels wronged by Woodgrain.
“They’re going to send you in there knowing that that roof was bad? That’s crazy to me. To me, that’s like, this business, that product, this money is bigger than you. Bigger than your life, than your kids and your family.”