Call for safeguards emerges from ruins of N.C. fire Legislators, labor scrutinize workplace

September 09, 1991|By John Hechinger | John Hechinger,Knight-Ridder News Service

CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- Tuesday, Sept. 3, 1991, could become one of the more important dates in the history of the American workplace.

The day after Labor Day, workers screamed, "Let me out," as they fled a fire in a chicken-processing plant in Hamlet, N.C. Twenty-five people died.

Now, federal and state legislators, union leaders, safety advocates, employees and businesses are calling for better protection of the country's workers.

"If they would only have cared," said Brenda Bailey, 44, a worker at Imperial Food Products who escaped the "great ball of fire" that killed her friends. "It's sad that it takes something like this to wake people up. Those people's lives were wasted."

National AFL-CIO labor organizers are converging on Hamlet, a city of 6,200 about 70 miles east of Charlotte.

Two congressional investigators are gathering evidence for a hearing in Washington on Thursday.

The Rev. Jesse L. Jackson plans to visit to rally workers.

In North Carolina and across the country, people with power are heeding Brenda Bailey's cry, demanding more inspections and tougher government oversight.

The state's largest business group said that it had had a change of heart. After the Imperial fire, the worst North Carolina workplace accident on record, the group now says the state needs more inspectors.

"We do believe there's a need for more manpower," said Phil Kirk, president of N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. "This tragedy has certainly called more attention to it."

Some state legislators say it's time for action.

"There's enough guilt around for everybody," said state Sen. Marc Basnight, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. "We all can claim some. Let's move forward to correct it and make sure it doesn't happen again. . . . If it means that we have to come in and hire 100 inspectors, we'll hire 100."

Added state House Speaker Dan Blue: "You're talking about the working poor. All of us are supposed to be looking out for them. It shouldn't matter whether people will vote for us. It's the right thing to do."

At this week's congressional hearing, lawmakers plan to examine the disaster.

"The next time someone complains about too much government, they should visit the cemeteries of Hamlet, N.C.," said Representative William D. Ford, D-Mich., chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee.

"There will be 25 funeral services this week," he said, "Twenty-five reasons why government should have a role in worker and plant safety."

It wouldn't be the first time a workplace disaster sparked dramatic change.

On March 25, 1911, 146 women and girls died in flames or leapt to their deaths at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory in New York.

As in the North Carolina fire, authorities blamed locked doors and substandard fire-prevention systems for workers' deaths.

The Triangle disaster sparked an era of tougher laws about inspections, safety standards and child labor.

More recently, the federal government created the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in 1970, allowing the government to police working conditions.

University of North Carolina professor Leon Fink, a specialist in labor history, says that OSHA oversight cut workplace injuries and illnesses.

But, since 1980, as the federal government cut money for inspections, that trend has reversed, Mr. Fink said.

He said a lack of uniform labor laws left businesses scrambling to move to states like North Carolina with lax enforcement of safety laws.

Change isn't certain.

Fearing foreign competition, foes of tighter regulation say that businesses will lose their competitive edge. While expressing sorrow for lives lost, they also say that current OSHA rules are tough enough.

"I think there's going to be overreaction," said Courtney Roberts, director of industrial relations for a construction industry trade group in Charlotte. "There will be new rules that will result in problems for business and industry. That's inevitable."

Last week, Gov. James G. Martin said he wasn't sure the state needed more inspectors. And state Labor Commissioner John Brooks blamed legislators for the state's safety program, the nation's most thinly staffed.

What could happen now?

In August, Mr. Ford and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., introduced a bill to toughen OSHA rules. Its proposals would:

* Make it easier for the federal program to take over state-run programs judged ineffective. Mr. Kirk, the business lobbyist, said he now believed that authorities should "look very carefully" at a federal takeover of North Carolina's state-controlled occupational safety program. Twenty-three states, including North Carolina, receive money from the federal government but manage their own workplace safety efforts.

* Require companies with more than 10 employees to set up worker committees on workplace safety. The committees would be free to conduct inspections and recommend changes to employers.

* Allow federal authorities to prosecute the most serious violations.

* Require companies to report accidents that hospitalize two or more workers, instead of those that hospitalize five or more.

* Expand federal protection to public-sector employees.

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