Made with pride

At Albany-based Wood Castle, employees are building more than heirloom-quality furniture. They’re building healthy habits that hopefully will last a lifetime.

posted August 19, 2016

Wood Castle retooled with safer equipment and ergonomic work practices.

If you want to sleep on a Wood Castle bed, you could buy one for around $1,400 retail. You could check into the Bandon Dunes Lodge for around $300 a night. Or you could work at the company for three years and get one for free.

Since opening its doors in 1978, Albany-based Wood Castle has built a national reputation for making fine hardwood furniture for upscale retailers and resorts, including Rejuvenation, Room & Board, Bandon Dunes, and Salishan. The company's 49 employees take pride in what they do, and one of the ways they're rewarded is with a custom piece of furniture at significant work anniversaries. Many of those pieces get handed down to the next generation.

But Wood Castle is building more than heirloom-quality furniture. The company also is creating a workplace culture that places a high value on safety and encourages healthy habits both at work and at home.

“We’re a family company. We set up work stations so we’d be comfortable with any family member working there, whether it’s a sister, a brother, or a son. We have the same goal for our employees.” Ron Loe

In addition to cutting edge technology and ergonomic workstations, the company has invested in wellness programs that actually pay employees to learn about nutrition. They've replaced vending machines with free fruit and healthy beverages. New employees are buddied up with seasoned workers, who coach continually on safety.

Wood Castle's focus on employee well-being goes beyond the equipment they use, explains Ron Loe, president and founder. "It goes into team building, and the kind of people we hire and train." It's about having a "health and safety mindset."

Betting on quality

Ron Loe learned about furniture building from his grandfather, who brought the family tradition from Norway. After graduating from Oregon State University, Loe worked as a factory rep for a wood products mill. Traveling around Oregon, he saw furniture makers substituting inexpensive particleboard and plastic for solid materials.

Loe built Wood Castle on the belief that customers would be willing to pay more for quality craftsmanship. That bet has paid off for more than 30 years, despite stiff competition from lower priced imports. The company uses a combination of handcrafting techniques and automated machinery to mass produce furniture made primarily of locally harvested Pacific Coast maple. In an unassuming cluster of buildings off Highway 34 near Corvallis, workers handle every step of the manufacturing process-from milling rough lumber to applying fine finishes to packaging products for delivery.

This attention to detail doesn't come cheap. The company's products range at retail from several hundred dollars for a night stand to several thousand for a dining table. Recent clients include the OSU College of Forestry; the new Boulder Falls Inn in Lebanon, Oregon; and a Sheraton hotel in Miami, Florida.

Employees have a hand in designing safety innovations, including adjustable workstations. One result: fewer back injuries

Investing in safety

Wood Castle also doesn't skimp when it comes to safety. Following a devastating fire in 1996, Loe retooled the factory with cutting-edge technology that has improved efficiency and reduced injuries. For example, a computerized chop saw keeps workers safely away from dangerous moving parts, while churning through 7,000 board feet of lumber a day.

“Safety and health are joined at the hip. You can’t address one without the other.” Scott Pierson

Based on suggestions from workers, Wood Castle created adjustable workstations that eliminate the need for stooping and bending. Furniture also is built on removable casters, so that large pieces can be easily moved throughout the factory, onto delivery trucks, and right into the customer's home without heavy lifting.

Recently, the company switched to a formaldehyde-free finish after learning about potentially unsafe exposures in their spraying process. The new product is more expensive but healthier for employees and customers. It also eliminates the need for extensive protective gear and gives Wood Castle a "green" marketing advantage, says Loe.

Focusing on health

Pierson is passionate about sharing what he's learned with Wood Castle employees.

Wood Castle's commitment to employee health and safety also gives it a competitive advantage when it comes to hiring and retaining a talented workforce, says Scott Pierson, head of operations. "It speaks volumes about the company we want to be."

Pierson became focused on the connection between health and safety after a personal health scare several years ago. During a routine screening, he got the alarming news that he was "a heart attack waiting to happen." As a result, the youth sports coach and former college athlete shifted his focus from being "in shape" to eating well and being fit for life.

Fresh fruit-and nutrition tips-are free for the taking.

Pierson is passionate about sharing what he's learned with Wood Castle employees. In the company conference room, the table is spread with books on nutrition and other healthy topics. Employees are encouraged to take the books home and share the information with family members. If they pass a simple test, they get a $50 gift certificate. The company also spends about $200 a week on fresh fruit and healthy beverages, which it provides to employees free of charge in place of sugary soda and processed snacks.

Pierson believes it's a smart investment, and research backs him up. Studies show that healthy employees have fewer injuries and absences, and are more productive. That's why monthly team meetings focus on both safety and health topics. The two "are joined at the hip," Pierson says. "You can't address one without the other."

Reaping the rewards

As a result of safer equipment and improved ergonomics, Wood Castle has seen a significant reduction in back injuries. Workers' comp premiums also have steadily decreased. Even more important, the company is building a culture where concern for employee health and safety goes hand in hand with "pride in what we do and how we do it," says Ron Loe.

For evidence of that pride, consider the custom furniture employees receive after three years employment. They get to choose the style, pick out the wood, and even have a hand in the production process. "Many pass it on to family members, so they're affecting the next generation," says Pierson. 

With any luck, these employees also will be handing down something equally valuable: healthy habits that will last a lifetime.

Learn more about how your business can prevent injuries by promoting health, an approach known as Total Worker Health®.


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