Needed: Safety in the Work Place

September 12, 1991

In 1902, Upton Sinclair published a book of fiction, "The Jungle," which told more truth about the American work place than anybody could stand. Among other things, it described packinghouse workers falling off unprotected catwalks and being cooked into lard. Sinclair's book is widely credited with helping establish the Food and Drug Administration and with accelerating efforts to end child labor. It took another story, the ghastly report of the deaths of 146 women and girls in flames at the Triangle Shirtwaist Co. factory in New York, nine years later, to prompt lawmakers to act on safety, however.

Watching the sad toll in Hamlet, N.C., it is all too clear that not enough prompting has yet been done, 88 years after Sinclair sounded the alarm.

North Carolina is not the only state whose occupational safety regulation is less than stringent, to be sure. In Maryland, for one, state Fire Marshall Rocco J. Gabriele's office knows of 40,000 properties needing annual inspections, but has enough staffers to make only 15,000 of those.

Maryland, like North Carolina, has many food processing facilities that use low-wage labor to compensate for thin profit margins. Maryland Occupational Safety and Health inspectors are empowered to cite violations such as blocked exits, inadequate fire extinguishers or missing evacuation plans, and they do. Fire marshals have more limited powers, and this must )) be addressed. Another problem is the staffing shortage caused by the new state mandate to inspect rapidly multiplying child-care centers. That, too, must be addressed to ensure that both kids in day-care centers and adults at work don't have to fear conflagrations.

It is despicable that some North Carolina business spokesmen have chosen this time to oppose tightening safety laws. Foreign competition, cited to scare regulators away from protecting workers because of the need to keep a competitive edge, presses equally hard in everyone's markets. The death of 25 people in an Imperial Food Products chicken processing plant whose exits were blocked, whose firefighting equipment was woefully inadequate and whose record shows no thorough fire-safety check in 11 years should have obliterated any doubts about the need for stricter control of hazards. North Carolina, which receives federal occupational safety funding but runs the nation's most thinly staffed program, cannot now believe its efforts have been adequate.

There is enough blame to go around. For the last decade, federal authorities have cut money for safety inspections and hampered efforts of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to move aggressively on workplace safety issues. The tragedy in North Carolina makes it clear that the time has come for Washington to reverse course.

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