Author of new book on tragic 1991 Hamlet chicken plant fire: Little of substance has changed

Author of new book on tragic 1991 Hamlet chicken plant fire: Little of substance has changed

Twenty six years ago, one of the worst industrial accidents in U.S. history rocked the tiny town of Hamlet, North Carolina.

Twenty five workers died and 55 were injured when a grease fire broke out at the Imperial Food Products plant, which made cheap chicken tenders for chain restaurants like Long John Silvers. The victims, mostly black and female, struggled to get out of the building but found the doors locked from the outside. The plant’s owner, Emmett J. Roe, kept the doors padlocked and the windows boarded because he thought his low-wage workers might steal chicken.

Some struggled desperately to kick the doors open, leaving indentations in the steel before being burned to death or succumbing to smoke inhalation. Others tried to huddle in a large walk-in freezer to avoid the blaze, where they nearly froze before suffocating.

In the aftermath of the fire, state and federal investigators found the building had no fire alarms, no sprinklers — nothing that could be considered a fire exit. It had never undergone a safety inspection.

Roe, the company’s owner, was ultimately convicted of involuntary manslaughter. He was sentenced to 19 years and 11 months and served less than four.

Bryant Simon

A new book by Bryant Simon, a history professor at Temple University, takes a hard look at the root causes of the fire, its impact and how little has unfortunately changed since.

“The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives” examines the cost of deregulation, cheap food and cheap labor at a time when all three are again a priority in North Carolina and the nation. Indeed, Simon said in an interview with N.C. Policy Watch’s Chris Fitzsimon, they always have been.

In the immediate aftermath of the fire, there were some noises about change, Simon said. But that didn’t last long.

“There was a flurry of regulation, a flurry of discussion in North Carolina and to a lesser extent around the country,” Simon said.  “And within 18 months, politicians were back to the mantra of  cutting regulations — that cheap was the only way to go.”

“Both parties participate in a kind of reproducing of this tragedy — the idea that the only way we can get forward is to attract jobs — any job is a good job, it doesn’t need to be protected, if it can deliver products cheaper, we’re all better off,” Simon said.

“What we’re doing is hiding the actual cost of that system,” Simon said. “To the people who make our products, to the environment and actually to the food we eat.”

Hamlet, a town of fewer than 7,000 people, was once a railroad town — a labor union hub where people could expect to go from high school to a secure, middle class job for the rest of their lives. As unions, regulations and those jobs disappeared, Simon said, the town sunk into the sort of poverty that made it attractive to people like Roe. Assured he could find cheap labor and that government would look the other way, even reward companies that created low paying and dangerous jobs, Roe exploited the opportunity and created the conditions that would lead to the tragedy.

“He in some ways moved to Hamlet for silence — to be unseen,” Simon said. “What we often call deregulation is about forms of looking away, the way in which we choose not to look at the least fortunate.”

In his book, Simon quotes a local woman as saying that she didn’t even realize that the people working in the factory existed — and probably never would have, had the fire not happened.

Some meaningful changes did come out of the fire. Under pressure from the federal government, the state legislature passed more than a dozen new worker safety laws. The number of state workplace safety inspectors went from about 50 to 114.

But although there was a lot of scrutiny, there was not enough additional funding for safety and compliance inspectors. More than a quarter-century later, there are still far too few inspectors and the Department of Labor is so underfunded that it has having trouble keeping the ones it has.

Kevin Beauregard, Deputy Commissioner of Labor

“In the last few years we’ve had a lot of turnover and that’s to do with the salaries we’re able to offer,” said Kevin Beauregard, Deputy Commissioner of Labor. “We’ve been doing a lot to try to address that — but salaries aren’t keeping up with the private sector, which makes it difficult to retain people.”

Beauregard had just joined the department in 1991 and remembers the Hamlet fire well.

“I’ve got a newspaper that goes back to that time sitting on my cabinet in the office,” Beauregard said. “I look at that all the time. Last year was the 25th anniversary. We certainly haven’t forgotten it. We never want to see something like that happen again.”

The fire led to a large training effort at both the state and federal level, better interdepartmental cooperation and an effort to make sure employees understood basic health and safety information and could report violations — anonymously if necessary, to avoid reprisal.

The department has also been working to make employers understand that compliance with safety regulations isn’t just the law and the right thing to do — it also makes economic sense.

“There’s a lot of money associated with injuries and illnesses,” he said. “ They can make a big impact on a business and on the state, economically.”

Unfortunately, there aren’t enough inspectors to properly check out the more than 180,000 sites in North Carolina that should be adhering to basic workplace safety standards, Beauregard said. He doubts there ever will be.

“But there is enough staff to look at those sites that have a higher number of injuries and illnesses, those businesses who have a higher number of employees at risk, and to make sure people have the information they need,” Beauregard said.

Even doing that, though, requires proper funding.

“The last 12 months has been a lot better than the previous two years – the legislature did give us a little more funding,” Beauregard said. “I think to be honest with you, probably the biggest concern of mine is not increasing the number of staff that we have; it’s just retaining the staff we have now. If we paid our staff a competitive rate we’d save a lot of money due to turnover.”

That’s another lesson, as Simon points out in his book, that both government and private industry consistently fail to heed — at their peril and that of their workers.

“There was once the  notion that high wages, regulation and protections were good for everybody,” Simon said.

But no matter how many tragedies happen and how large the cost, the thinking seems always to shift back to “cheap food and cheap labor could solve all our problems.”

It’s difficult to get buy-in for the idea that everyone from the government to the individual consumer may need to pay more to get better, more humane outcomes and avoid large-scale tragedies like the Hamlet fire, Simon said.

“Cheap” — in everything from fast food to labor to the cost of enforcing basic safety regulations — is just too seductive, Simon said.

On September 26, Bryant Simon will headline an N. C. Policy Watch Crucial Conversation luncheon. The event will take place at 12 noon at the Junior League of Raleigh’s Center for Community Leadership. Registration will be available shortly.