This concise, well-reported story offers a vivid picture of the negligence and failures that resulted in the deaths of 25 workers in a fire at a North Carolina chicken processing plant in 1991. Surviving workers and community members still struggle with the aftermath. Seasoned journalist John Drescher covered the fire at the time as a local reporter and revisited it recently for this story. He reports that any safety improvements made after the fire were inadequate or have since fallen short or faded away. Those responsible for risk management or workplace health and safety, as well as top executives, policymakers and journalists covering local government and business, should take heed.
- A fire in a chicken processing plant killed 25 workers in Hamlet, NC in 1991. Locked exit doors hampered victims’ escape.
- Reforms made after the Hamlet fire were transient and did not include structural changes.
- Workers who survived the blaze bore physical and psychological wounds. Their whole community suffered.
A fire in a chicken processing plant killed 25 workers in Hamlet, NC in 1991. Locked exit doors hampered victims’ escape.
Hamlet, North Carolina’s chicken processing plant had been operating for more than a decade when a 1991 fire killed 25 factory workers. Locked exit doors trapped some people in the building.
Workplace safety inspectors had never visited the plant, but US Department of Agriculture (USDA) food-safety inspectors came often. Reporters filed Freedom of Information Act requests for copies of inspection paperwork, enabling The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News and Observer to report that USDA inspectors at the time approved locking the exit doors to control flies, even though locking them was illegal. Workers told reporters that the plant’s owner, Imperial Food Products, wanted the doors locked to keep workers from stealing chickens – not because of a problem with flies.
“Three decades have passed and memories have faded. While the deaths led to a reassessment of the state’s emaciated safety program and the hiring of dozens of new workplace inspectors, the reform momentum prompted by the fire is long gone”
The USDA initially shrugged off responsibility, observing that reporting “workplace safety” concerns is not part of its mandate, but is “optional.” In response to pressure, the USDA signed an agreement to report such safety concerns to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). Almost three decades after that agreement, no US inspector has “forwarded a written complaint involving worker safety” to OSHA.
The Hamlet fire taught its community many lessons, but the one about how important it is for government inspectors to identify and report safety hazards didn’t stick. However, the town did institute regular fire code compliance inspections, which continue.
Reforms made after the Hamlet fire were transient and did not include structural changes.
The severely understaffed state inspectors had never inspected the plant. The facility eschewed basic elements of workplace safety used commonly for more than a century – fire alarms, fire-containment doors, sprinkler systems, evacuation plans and firewalls – making it “a primitive death trap.” The local fire department did not conduct safety inspections at the time, even though the plant experienced three fires in the 1980s.
The state tightened up a little by raising the level of fines for safety violations but has since lowered them. North Carolina now has 114 workplace inspector positions, but 25% of those slots are empty. Low annual salaries ($46,000 to $48,000) contribute to the lack of inspectors. Labor Commissioner Josh Dobson is working to fill positions and hopes to increase compensation and add more inspectors.
“The data suggest the lessons were briefly learned and now they are being unlearned or being allowed to fade into memory. I’m saddened but not surprised…We can do better than this. We cannot have another tragedy like this in Hamlet or any other town. We’re still feeling the aftershocks from 1991.” (Wayne Goodwin, former state representative, insurance commissioner and fire marshal)
Found guilty of 83 safety infringements, Imperial was fined $800,000. It declared bankruptcy, and its owner, Emmett Roe, served four years of a 20-year sentence for 25 counts of “involuntary manslaughter.”
Workers who survived the blaze bore physical and psychological wounds. Their whole community suffered.
Twenty-five workers – including 18 women, many of whom were single moms – perished; 54 people were injured and 49 children were orphaned.As then-Mayor Abbie Covington, 75, now a City Council member, recounts, “The entire town was a victim of the fire.”
“Sadly, though there was some progress in worker safety following this stunning tragedy, especially in the meat and poultry industry. I think things have back-slided.” (former OSHA official Debbie Berkowitz)
Annette Zimmerman was working as a substitute on the chicken deboning line when screams interrupted her work. A mechanical rupture created a spill of hydraulic liquid near a deep fat fryer where the fluid ignited, generating disabling smoke. As the plant’s lighting went dark, Zimmerman joined a crowd of about 90 people in a panic to escape. They ran against a locked exit door. Some workers tried to escape by hiding in a cooler where a dozen of them eventually died. Others perished just outside the cooler.
Someone found Zimmerman, who had been trampled, on the floor and carried her out. She has endured four psychiatric hospitalizations and many surgeries. A whiff of smoke brings back memories, she says, “…it never goes away.” While Zimmerman is still in daily pain, her spirit is undaunted. She has volunteered as the director of the food pantry at her church for 20 years.
“The US Fire Administration’s report on Hamlet listed as No. 1 in the ‘Lessons Learned’ section, ‘Life safety codes must be enforced… Enforcement is [as] essential as the code requirements themselves’.”
Firefighters, claims adjusters, local politicians and journalists shared the grim aftermath of Hamlet’s tragedy with local people who were affected. Lawyers labored to obtain appropriate restitution for victims of the fire. One victim, Mildred Moates, was left “legally blind” and “needed constant care.”She passed away the day after she received a settlement – more than 20 years after the fire.
Today workplace fatalities are on the rise in North Carolina.
About the Author
John Drescher is a contributing editor to The Assembly, former executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC, and a former editor at The Washington Post.