In late March, Texas Monthly published a feature about injuries and safety violations at Custom Cut Lumber, an East Texas sawmill owned and operated by members of the Church of Wells. In reporting the story, I’d found that almost one in four of all severe injuries at Texas sawmills since 2017 have occurred at the facility. Eight days after publication online, inspectors from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration inspected Custom Cut Lumber’s sawmill. The agency ultimately cited the business with four new workplace safety violations, the details of which Texas Monthly recently acquired via the Freedom of Information Act.
The Church of Wells is an insular, fundamentalist church whose members believe they are among the very few truly saved Christians on earth. Soon after relocating from Arlington to Wells, in the Piney Woods of East Texas, in 2012, members of the group opened a small sawmill behind the convenience store they had leased in town. In 2014, leaders moved the mill onto a larger tract of land in nearby Alto. Today, Custom Cut Lumber employs nearly forty workers—around half of whom are congregants—and has used the facility, which they refer to as the “Lord’s mill,” as an economic vehicle for expansion of the church abroad.
In 2018, I received a tip that the Texas Workforce Commission had fined the business for employing four children younger than eighteen, including two as young as eleven. Following up on the tip, I kept hearing about adults who had been severely injured at the mill. From interviews with former congregants and employees about labor conditions at the business, and state and federal labor records, Texas Monthly confirmed that at least 21 injuries—ranging from fractured toes to amputated fingertips—have occurred at the mill since 2017.
Some men who had worked at the facility said that the mill’s machinery was operated without a lockout-tagout procedure, a required safety practice that renders an instrument inoperable while it is under maintenance. The lack of such a procedure led to at least one major injury: a compound fracture requiring emergency surgery. (Before the March story went to press, Eric Kolder, a lawyer for the sawmill, disputed that there weren’t lockout-tagout procedures in place, writing that the company works with a workplace-safety consultant to “ensure compliance with all [Occupational Safety and Health Administration] safety standards, including Lockout and Tagout Systems.”)
In April 2022, OSHA inspectors spent more than four hours at the sawmill. That examination led to the regulatory agency issuing two violations on Custom Cut in May and two more in July after it subpoenaed the business for internal documents relating to health and safety practices, including information on its lockout-tagout program, hearing conservation program, and other safety training.
One of the July citations concerned the lack of a lockout-tagout program. “Employees perform maintenance on equipment with multiple sources of energy without the use of a an [sic] energy control procedures in place to prevent the accidental release of stored energy while working on equipment,” the OSHA inspector wrote on the violation worksheet. “Employees work DAILY on equipment with multiple sources of energy such as hydraulic, pneumatic and gravity on machines such as but not limited to saws and stacker machines.” The inspector wrote that the employer had informal “toolbox” meetings—short consultations about safety measures and workplace hazards—with employees about lockout-tagout in 2020 but did not develop or use a formal program to deal with the hazards. OSHA also cited the company for not providing appropriate eye protection to employees who wear prescription glasses.
OSHA proposed a penalty of $10,151 for the lack of a lockout-tagout program and $5,801 for the lack of eye protection, later amending the total for both citations to $9,571.20 under an “expedited informal settlement agreement.” When reached, Kolder said that the mill now has a lockout-tagout program in place.
In May, OSHA cited Custom Cut Lumber for not developing and implementing a noise monitoring program, despite an awareness that employees’ “exposure to noise equaled or exceed[ed] the 8-hour time-weighted average of 85 decibels.” OSHA also cited the company for an “other-than-serious” violation for only having one flush toilet instead of two, as a business with 16 to 35 employees must have. “Through reasonable due-diligence, the employer should have known of OSHA requirements for adequate workplace sanitation prior to commencing operations at this worksite,” the inspector wrote.
OSHA proposed a penalty of $7,832 for the lack of a noise monitoring program and $733 for the missing toilet, later amending the total for both citations to $5,139 under an expedited informal settlement agreement.
In total, the mill has paid $14,710 to OSHA in fines since May 2022. Kolder declined to comment on the specific violations beyond writing that they have been resolved. “Like I’ve said before,” he wrote, Custom Cut Lumber leaders “work continually with an OSHCON [Occupational Safety and Health Consultation] representative to ensure OSHA compliance.”