Twenty-seven years ago today, twenty-five chicken processing workers were killed when fire swept through the Imperial Food Products Company plant in Hamlet, N.C. A grease fire started on a chicken fryer and spread quickly inside the Imperial Foods Products building. Emergency response was delayed because telephones inside the building could not be used. The building’s sprinkler system failed, forcing workers to run through heavy smoke. Workers tried desperately to escape the smoke and flames, clawing at exit doors that had been locked to keep the workers from stealing chickens.
In it’s entire 11 year existence, OSHA had never inspected the plant. Plant owner Emmett Roe, age 65, was sentenced to 19 years, 11 months in prison, but was let out after serving four.
But, of course, some lessons are never learned. OSHA still frequently cites establishments for blocked fire exits. Dollar General and Dollar Tree for example have been cited by OSHA numerous times for blocking exits. In 2015, OSHA reached a settlement with Dollar Tree concerning blocked exits and other issues. The settlement was intended to resolve numerous contested citations, and included an agreement by the company would pay $825,000 in penalties arising from 13 different inspections. Nevertheless, Dollar Tree violations continue, the most recent last July 3.
You can read more about the Hamlet fire in this Smithsonian review of The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives by Bryant Simon, a professor at Temple University.