20 Years After North Carolina Plant Fire, Inspections Declining

September 6, 2011

Twenty years after the worst industrial accident in North Carolina history, there are signs that progress in worker safety made after the deaths of 25 people in a chicken plant fire is beginning to wane.

The Charlotte Observer reported Sunday inspections and citations by the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration have dropped, with total citations at about 10,400 – the lowest number in 17 years. Inspections are at 4,500, their lowest level since 2001.

The Sept. 3, 1991, fire at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet killed 25 people. State OSHA officials had never inspected the plant, and workers died behind doors that were locked to prevent chicken thefts.

State OSHA officials, threatened with a federal takeover of their workplace safety program, doubled the number of inspectors and promised to get tougher on employers who flouted the rules.

North Carolina’s OSHA program is stronger than it was before the fire, said workplace safety advocate Tom O’Connor, who heads the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health.

“It was a big wake-up call,” he said. “But I think a lot of the promises of really overhauling the program and making it a truly effective deterrent have just not come about.”

State Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry and other Labor Department officials declined to be interviewed. In an email, Berry said North Carolina is recognized for having one of the nation’s top OSHA programs.

“When you look at the big picture in North Carolina, there is no disputing the state has made significant progress,” she wrote. “… I can tell you workplaces are safer now.”

She points to North Carolina’s steadily declining workplace injury and illness rates as evidence that the state’s approach is working. North Carolina’s rates are at an all-time low and are below those in most other states.

But a 2008 Observer investigation showed that the injury numbers aren’t always accurate. Regulators use an honor system, relying on companies to report all serious workplace injuries. The newspaper found that regulators in North Carolina rarely crack down on companies that don’t self-report.

Other safety trends have been mixed. For example, workplace deaths reached a low in 2009, then climbed more than 40 percent last year. There were 48 deaths in 2010, up from 34 the previous year.

Violations deemed to be “willful” can lead to stiff financial penalties and can cost companies lucrative contracts. But in North Carolina, fewer than one of every 1,000 OSHA violations has been deemed willful over the past decade.

State OSHA inspectors found more than 80 safety violations in the Hamlet plant fire, where a ruptured hydraulic line sprayed flammable fluid onto a deep fat fryer, setting off a fireball and filling the plant with smoke.

Conester Williams remembers the balls of fire that shot across the plant floor. She and her co-workers ran to a door, but it was locked. Two of her close friends were dead by the time the door was opened.

“We couldn’t open the door,” she said. “One boy beat a hole in the wall. Everyone was hollering for help. It did no good.”

From 1990 to 1993, the state transformed its occupational safety program into one of the nation’s largest, doubling the number of safety inspectors to 115. And North Carolina continues to have more OSHA inspectors than all but a few states. The state Labor Department notes that Georgia, a state with a slightly larger population, has less than a third as many inspectors.

But the number of workplace safety inspectors has remained flat since 1993, despite 19 percent growth in the state’s workforce. North Carolina has 114 inspectors – one less than it had in 1993, the year the state completed its expansion of OSHA. And Berry said she’s concerned that federal cutbacks may cause the state to lose positions, and that she expects no significant increases in government funding anytime soon.

“We can’t be in every workplace, just like policemen can’t be on every street corner,” she wrote.

Williams, the Hamlet survivor, said she worries about the trends. She remembers struggling to breathe and talk because of all the smoke she inhaled. She hopes another disaster isn’t on the horizon.

“I don’t think people are paying close attention like they should,” she said. “I don’t think they’ll ever do that.”

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