Policy Watch Investigates

NC open records delay stymies historian

A Temple University professor wants to hear what survivors of a 1991 fatal fire at Hamlet’s Imperial Foods plant said to labor department investigators for a book he’s writing about what was and still is the state’s worst industrial fire.

But Bryant Simon’s June 2011 request to look at the witness accounts of the fire that killed 25, including many workers whose bodies were near locked exit doors, has been pending at the N.C. Department of Labor for nearly a year and a half.

“There’s no other way to get this information if you’re a historian,” Simon said. “Hamlet was now 21 years ago and there’s virtually no records available.”

Simon plans on writing a book about the culture of cheapness that surrounded the plant – the fast-food chicken tenders the workers were making out of chicken, the low pay worker’s received and the shortcuts taken around labor laws. The voices of the surviving workers that spoke to the N.C. Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators are key to his work, and his research has been held up without them, Simon said.

“The forces that are shaping our own lives blow up in Hamlet,” said Simon, who was attending graduate school in 1991 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. “It’s an early indicator of the world we’re living in now that’s build around the idea of cheap.”

Simon contacted N.C. Policy Watch earlier this year about his public records impasse. When N.C. Policy Watch inquired in early October about the status of Simon’s records request, the agency has said it will begin transcribing the numerous hand-written statements of witnesses, said Dolores Quesenberry, the N.C. Department of Labor spokeswoman.

“We’ve requested that they make it a priority so that he can get these records,” Quesenberry said.

Many of the statements need to be transcribed from the original handwriting, in line with a state law that requires the labor department to mask the identity (and handwriting) of witnesses to workplace safety issues, even for accidents that occurred more than two decades ago. That cost will be absorbed by Simon.

Public access to records

North Carolina’s public records law requires agencies to provide the public with documents “as promptly as possible.”  Unlike the federal government and some other states, North Carolina doesn’t have a firm deadline for public agencies to provide the records.

The courts often serve as a last resort for public records issues, with media companies taking the lead in pushing for access to records related to timely news event.

But historians also have a need to access government records, Simon says, which are often the only first-person accounts of happenings. He was surprised that the records of the Hamlet fire were still at the N.C. Department of Labor, and hadn’t been handed off to the state archives given the fire’s significance in the state.

The fire exposed woefully lacking enforcement of North Carolina’s worker safety laws. The plant hadn’t had a safety inspection in its 11-year existence, and the plant’s owners had come to North Carolina after their Pennsylvania plant was cited for unsafe working conditions by labor inspectors. Several reforms were pushed through after the fire, and John Brooks, the labor commissioner at the time of the fire, ultimately levied a record $808,150 fine against the plant, though the company never paid it, according to a News & Observer article on the fire’s 20-year anniversary. (Brooks, a Democrat, is challenging Cherie Berry, the Republican labor commissioner since 2000, in this November’s election.)

Emmett Roe, who had ordered that the plant doors be locked, spent less than 5 years in prison after he plead guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter. Roe said it was to keep flies away, while workers said it was to stop employees from stealing chicken, according to the N&O article.

Simon first made his request to review the records on June 15, 2011. He sent emails approximately every three months asking for updates, according to copies of email correspondence provided by Simon.

Though given copies of the state’s findings initially, he got little information in coming months about his request for witness statements.

In February 2012, eight months after his request was made, he was told, “Your request is still in que (sic),” by Chanel Brown, a labor department research assistant.

Similar answers from Brown come back in April (“ “We haven’t forgot(ten) about you, Your request is still in que.”) and in July (“Your still on the list.”).

On Sept. 17, Brown tells him via email that it could be months before he gets the information.

“We continue to have a huge backlog, with limited staff,” Brown wrote. “It very well may be several months before we can complete your request.”

After N.C. Policy Watch inquired about his information request, Simon received an email from Anne Weaver, the bureau chief of planning, statistics and information management, telling him that the worker statements would be transcribed and the documents would soon be in his hands.

He’s glad to finally be getting the information he needs, but said the experience has left him wondering what encounters other scholars will have.

“There’s a larger issue about access to information for people trying to understand the state’s present by learning about the past,” Simon said.

 

Questions? Comments? Reporter Sarah Ovaska can be reached at (919) 861-1463 or sarah@ncpolicywatch.com.

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