Chris Fitzsimon: Twenty years later, safer workplaces Hamlet’s legacy

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Twenty years ago this Saturday, 25 workers died in a fire at the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. 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.

Fitzsimon is director of NC Policy Watch