On Tuesday, September 3, 1991, a 25-foot long fryer vat ignited at Imperial Foood Product’s chicken processing plant in Hamlet, NC. Workers were unable to get out of the plant because management had locked all exits except the main entrance in order to prevent employee theft. The plant had no windows, no fire alarm, no sprinkler system, and no fire extinguisher system over the vat. Twenty-five people died in the fire, and another 49 were injured. That plant had never been inspected by North Carolina OSHA.
The tragedy echoed that of the March 2011 Triangle Shirtwaist Fire, where mostly female workers as young as 12 or 13 were locked into a factory in a New York City building because the owners wanted to prevent theft. When the fire broke out they were unable to escape and many jumped to their deaths. One hundred and forty-six women died as a result. The fire sparked widespread outrage at the owners and the lack of workplace safety laws and enforcement. Between 1911 and 1915, Workers’ Compensation legislation was passed in 32 states.
We should not forget the need for enforcement of workplace safety laws, nor the men and women who lost their lives in the Hamlet fire and other workplace accidents.