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VOICES: Remembering the lessons of the Hamlet fire

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imperial_foods_fire_aftermath.jpgBy Chris Fitzsimon, NC Policy Watch

Twenty years ago this Saturday, 25 workers died in a fire at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina. They were trapped in the blaze, their footprints left on the locked door they couldn't force open before they died.

The owner had said he was worried about people stealing chickens.

The plant had never been inspected by safety officials in the 11 years it had been open.

The deaths prompted legislative leaders, most prominently then House Speaker Dan Blue, to create a special commission to make policy recommendations for tougher safety laws.

The General Assembly passed a version of the commission's recommendations the following summer, giving workers in North Carolina more protections on the job. But passing even that compromise version of the new safety regulations wasn't easy.

Supporters of the commission's recommendations held a news conference at the Legislative Building before the legislative session began. Speakers included workers who were in the plant when the fire consumed it, people whose friends lost their lives as they screamed that they couldn't open the door. The tearful testimony stunned the crowd of reporters, legislators, and advocates in the room.

When the news conference was over, reporters asked a powerful Senator who had been listening in the back of the room what he thought of the recommendations and the appeal by the workers who had spoken.

He said that the absolutely most important thing was not to overreact and put any new burdens on North Carolina companies.

No acknowledgement of the deaths, no expression of sympathy for families of the workers who had died or the trauma suffered by those who had survived. And no outrage at a company that would lock fire doors and put employees' lives at risk.

The Senator's reaction seemed incomprehensible at the time. But it reflected a view held by the lobbyists for many of the state's corporate business interests and more than a few legislators.

One prominent member of the House called the bills introduced to implement the commission's recommendations "the worst legislation in the history of the Western Hemisphere."

Apparently more inspectors, worker safety committees and other changes designed to protect employees and make another Hamlet fire less likely were just too onerous for businesses to handle.

Ultimately, after months of debate and negotiations, the General Assembly approved the compromise versions of the commission's proposals and the workers in the state are safer because of it.

There is a memorial in Hamlet to the workers who were killed and the tougher laws are part of their legacy too.

It is important to think of those workers and their families on the 20th anniversary of the fire. And it's important to remember why they died, a cruel, greedy company and a state ill-equipped to protect them.

Now twenty years later, the philosophy that made it difficult then to pass the modest improvements in worker safety laws is the view of the majority of state lawmakers.

Legislative leaders routinely rail against almost all regulation and this session the House and Senate voted to make it far more difficult for state officials to adopt any rules to protect workers or the environment.

Regulations are strangling the state's economic growth they tell us, though their claims almost always come without specifics, just vague assertions about the jobs that could be created if regulations were lifted and new ones were forbidden.

The free market will take care of any problems. That's the idea.

The right-wing groups that support the current legislative leaders argue for example that airlines don't need to be regulated because an airline that had safety problems and crashes would go out of business because people wouldn't fly with it anymore.

That provides an incentive for airlines to provide safe flights. That's the theory, no regulations, just leave it up to the market and the corporations themselves and everything will be fine.

Passengers on planes and workers in plants will be safe.

A lot of people in Hamlet would disagree.

(Photo of the cooker around which the 1991 Imperial Foods chicken processing plant fire was centered is from a report by the U.S. Fire Administration via Wikipedia.)

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re: VOICES: Remembering the lessons of the Hamlet fire

Ftizsimon seeks to blame today's conservatives (“right-wing groups”) and Republican legislative leadership (“current legislative leaders”) and their policies for the tragic Hamlet fire, that occurred twenty years ago in 1991.
This is one more pathetic smear by Fitzsimon, who would rather vilify his opponents than debate them.
The reality is that in 1991 it was the Democratic Party that had held the majority in the North Carolina legislature for over 90 years, and an elected Democrat was the Commissioner of Labor responsible for work place safety and who had failed to inspect the Imperial Foods plant the 11 years it had been open.
The reality is that no one, Republican or Democrat, conservative or progressive, employer or employee, business association or union, defends the criminal negligence of locking doors inside the plant that led to the horrible deaths from the Hamlet fire. That was a violation of existing laws and common sense.
And while I recall a lot of debate over the economic deregulation of airline airfares, routes and such, can Ftizsimon back his claim that "right wing groups" ever argued that airline safety regulations should be abolished, because once people started dying from crashes, the airline would go out of business?!
If these outrageous charges against conservatives, Republicans and employers are the best NC Policy Watch and the Institute for Southern Studies can come up with, then no wonder you are losing the debate, and instead keep resorting to gross fabrications.

re: VOICES: Remembering the lessons of the Hamlet fire

Uh, the reality, Anonymous (speaking of "chickenshit") is that the Republican Party of 2011 is far bolder in its opposition to health and worker-safety regulation than its 1991 counterpart ever dreamed of being. Although it is technically true that they're not (yet) to the point of eliminating the ban on locking fire doors, they're advocating policies that are mathematically certain to lead to a nontrivial number of premature, preventable deaths.
If you want to say you're OK with that, that's fine, but don't pretend it isn't happening.

re: VOICES: Remembering the lessons of the Hamlet fire

Its important to remember that when the worker's were interviewed after the tragedy, they said they would never steal that filthy, rotten chicken. So rotten it was refused by Supermarkets. Refused by fastfood chains for Mcnuggets. But never too rotten for their biggest and most reliable customer, the Federal School Lunch Program.

re: VOICES: Remembering the lessons of the Hamlet fire

Last night I was reading a book by David Von Drehle about The Triangle Waist Factory fire, another industrial accident that happened 100 years ago in New York. I quote from page 3:
"The 149 deaths at the Triangle Waist Company were sensational, but they were not unusual. Death was an almost routine workplace hazard in those days. By one estimate, one hundred or more Americans died on the job every day in the booming industrial years around 1911. Mines collapsed on them, ships sank under them, pots of molten steel spilled over their heads, locomotives smashed into them, exposed machinery grabbed them by the arm or leg or hair and pulled them in.....Yet workplace safety was scarcely regulated, and workers' compensation was considered newfangled or even socialist."
I know of no politican, Republican or Democrat, who wants that era to return, but if we aren't careful and think naively that the market will take care of safety we are headed in the wrong direction. If the Highway Patrol wasn't out there catching speeders, human nature might encourage some to go at whatever speed they want, no matter the harm to others. I don't want the Highway Patrol to stop doing its job, nor do I want those who enforce safety laws to stop doing their job. The one who is harmed might be my kid or my neighbor, or God forbid, even me.