State officials conducted fewer work-safety inspections last year than at any time in the last 17 years. The Charlotte Observer reports the lessons of the 1991 chicken plant fire appear to be fading. The federal government’s takeover of the state Occupational Safety and Health Administration all but forgotten. The deadly North Carolina work accident fading into history.
And in the 20 years since 25 people were killed in the Hamlet fire (they were locked in to prevent the theft of chicken nuggets and died struggling with the doors), the state agency’s staff has not kept pace with the growth of the state’s workforce.
Our Charlotte workers’ compensation lawyers understand far too many employers get away with violating work safety rules. In the wake of the recent stories in the Charlotte Observer, the state makes excuses for the lack of accountability instead of acknowledging the shortcomings.
In fact, North Carolina Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry would only address reporters’ questions if they were submitted in writing.
“[T]here is no disputing [North Carolina] has made significant progress,” she wrote. “. . . I can tell you workplaces are safer now.”
Twenty-seven states, including North and South Carolina, run their own OSHA programs rather than being subjected to federal jurisdiction. The law requires these plans to be “at least as effective as federal OSHA.” In a 2009 review, federal regulators made a dozen recommendations for improvements and found a host of problems, including:
-Incomplete case histories due to the purging of material.
-Insufficient responses to the concerns of complainants.
-Insufficient information given to families of fatality victims.
-Outdated case files.
-Misclassified violations or long delays in the issuing of violations.
-Penalties that are too low for serious violations.
-Improper handling of discrimination complaints.
The Sept. 3, 1991 fire occurred in the windowless brick building 70 miles east of Charlotte. A fire erupted after a ruptured hydraulic line spewed flammable fluid onto a deep fryer at the Imperial Food Products plant. The plant had never been inspected, despite being in operation for more than a decade.
In the wake of the tragedy, the state doubled its number of inspectors to 115. While the state still has among the largest workforce of inspectors in the nation, the numbers have been flat since 1993. Meanwhile, the state’s workforce has increase by 19 percent. North Carolina OSHA conducted 4,500 inspections last year — the fewest since 2001.
Newly released statistics from the U.S. Department of Labor show 187 workers died in fires or explosions last year.
In all, 4,547 U.S. workers died last year — virtually unchanged from the 4,551 who died in 2009. Transportation accidents accounted for more than one-third of the deaths (1,766), followed by assault, contact with objects or equipment, and fatal falls.
Fatal job accidents in North Carolina increased last year. A total of 134 employees lost their lives, compared to 129 in 2009. In South Carolina, 65 lost their lives, compared to the 73 who died in 2009.
If you or a loved one is injured on the job, contact the Charlotte workers’ compensation attorneys at Grimes Teich Anderson LLP. Call 1.800.533.6845. No Attorney Fees Until You’ve Been Paid.