Twenty years ago, 25 workers died in a chicken plant fire in North Carolina. The tragedy caused a large upgrade of the state’s occupational safety agency. How is North Carolina OSHA doing now?
The answer to that question may depend on whether you’re a “glass-half-full” or “glass-half-empty” person.
The Charlotte Observer suggests, “20 years after Hamlet, N.C.’s worker safety push weakens.”
On Sept. 3, 1991, a ruptured hydraulic line sprayed flammable liquid onto a deep fat fryer at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, NC, setting off a fire and filling the plant with smoke.
Workers who were there say balls of fire shot across the plant floor. Employees ran to doors that were locked to prevent theft of chicken nuggets produced for fast-food restaurants. Twenty-five died, and if one worker hadn’t been able to break down one locked door, another 25 would have perished. That detail is eerily similar to the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire 80 years earlier in New York City that spurred action by New York state officials to address workplace safety.
The same thing happened in North Carolina after the Imperial fire. Federal officials slammed North Carolina OSHA after the 25 fatalities. The plant had never been inspected in 11 years of operation.
In the following two years, the state more than doubled its number of safety inspectors, bringing the total to 115. North Carolina OSHA became one of the nation’s largest such safety agencies.
But the number of inspectors never increased after 1993. Today the number stands at 114, despite 19% growth in the state’s workforce during the period.
On the other hand, today, North Carolina continues to have more OSHA inspectors than all but a few states. Georgia, a state with a slightly larger population, has less than a third as many inspectors.
Some other statistics compiled by the Observer show a mixed bag:
- Total citations dropped to 10,400 last fiscal year, the lowest number in 17 years.
- Inspections are at their lowest level since 2001.
- North Carolina’s injury and illness rates are at an all-time low and are below those in most other states.
- After reaching a low in 2009, workplace deaths climbed more than 40% last year — 48 deaths in 2010 compared to 34 in 2009.
- Fewer than one of every 1,000 OSHA violations were deemed willful in the last decade.
- Financial penalties rose to $5.9 million, the highest in years.
- But North Carolina imposes smaller fines than most other states.
North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry (R), an elected official, told the Observer she sees no evidence that high fines make job sites safe. Berry is also expecting a cut in federal funds that help pay for the state’s OSHA inspectors.
So here’s the question: Looking at North Carolina’s occupational safety story over the last 20 years, is it a success, a failure, or somewhere in between? Let us know what you think in the comments.