The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is getting well-deserved attention today. That incident highlighted unsafe working conditions, firefighting issues in large buildings, and discrimination against immigrants in sweatshops. The most egregious insult, which led to many of the deaths, was that management had locked the doors to the stairwells and exits. 146 garment workers had to die to get the ball rolling toward improved conditions and safety regulations.
But how much did we really learn? We think of sweatshops as all being overseas nowadays, but it’s worth examining an event that occurred nearly 80 years later in Hamlet, North Carolina, to answer that question. A fire at the Imperial Foods chicken-processing plant on September 3, 1991 killed 25 people and injured 54, because they were trapped behind locked fire doors. It seems management didn’t want employees taking breaks without having to go out the front where they could be monitored. The fire was the result of a jury-rigged modification of a hydraulic line.
There’d never been a safety inspection in the entire 11 years the place had been operating, due to lack of funding for enough inspectors. One inspection would have been enough to catch the violations, including a caved-in portion of the roof above where the fire began, at a natural-gas powered cooking unit next to the faulty line. There were no fire alarms, sprinklers, or exit signs, and no emergency drills or training had ever been conducted. The facility had no windows, and some workers hid in a cooler to escape the fire, but (if memory serves) at least some were suffocated. A tractor-trailer was blocking escape via the loading dock, as well.
As a hazardous waste inspector in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, I saw conditions like this frequently, and unlike others who only cared about their own jurisdictions and had blinders on to everything else, I’d always alert OSHA when I got back to the office. May have prevented a few incidents that way; I hope so.
Can government regulations go too far sometimes? Sure, so can anything. Does that mean we should throw ‘em ALL out, as some want to do? I dunno, what do YOU think? Does it even matter, if we don’t provide enough funding for inspectors to go do the job? Would you rather work at Triangle or Imperial? People used to complain about my environmental agency’s miniscule tax-funded budget, but boy, if a 55-gallon drum of mystery materials showed up leaking in their back alley, we couldn’t get there fast enough to please them. Can’t have it both ways, folks.
The photo is of Cooker No. 2, where the Imperial fire began. Note the steel roof girders, sagging from the heat.