North Carolina Fire Points to Workplace Hazards Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Workplace safety standards gained national attention when twenty-five employees of a food-processing plant died as the result of being trapped by a fast-moving fire in a structure with inadequate exit facilities.

Summary of Event

On September 3, 1991, a fire at the Imperial Food Products processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina, took the lives of more than two dozen of the plant’s workers. Subsequent investigation of the site revealed that illegally locked and blocked exit doors had been a major contributor to the tragedy. Hamlet was a community of fewer than seven thousand residents, and the town had limited firefighting resources. Although the fire department’s response was prompt, the fire had already gained such headway by the time firefighters arrived that they could do little to save the people inside the building. Fires;Imperial Food Products Workplace hazards Disasters;fires Imperial Food Products plant fire [kw]North Carolina Fire Points to Workplace Hazards (Sept. 3, 1991) [kw]Fire Points to Workplace Hazards, North Carolina (Sept. 3, 1991) [kw]Workplace Hazards, North Carolina Fire Points to (Sept. 3, 1991) [kw]Hazards, North Carolina Fire Points to Workplace (Sept. 3, 1991) Fires;Imperial Food Products Workplace hazards Disasters;fires Imperial Food Products plant fire [g]North America;Sept. 3, 1991: North Carolina Fire Points to Workplace Hazards[08180] [g]United States;Sept. 3, 1991: North Carolina Fire Points to Workplace Hazards[08180] [c]Disasters;Sept. 3, 1991: North Carolina Fire Points to Workplace Hazards[08180] [c]Business and labor;Sept. 3, 1991: North Carolina Fire Points to Workplace Hazards[08180] Roe, Emmett Hair, James N. Roe, Brad Fuller, David Scannell, Gerard F. Dunn, Charles Jeffress, Charles

Fires that kill large numbers of people usually occur in hotels or places of entertainment such as theaters and nightclubs rather than in workplaces. The fire in Hamlet was reminiscent of New York City’s Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911, in which approximately 146 people died because the factory’s exit doors were locked to keep employees in the building.

The building where the North Carolina fire occurred was a one-story, windowless structure in which poultry was processed, trimmed, cooked, packaged, and refrigerated before shipment. During a normal shift, about ninety people worked in the trimming, marinating, and cutting rooms and in the large processing and cooking area. The building also included storage areas where the finished product awaited shipment to restaurants in the eastern part of the United States. The structure had no built-in systems to protect the building or employees in case of fire, such as sprinklers or alarm systems. In addition, the employees had never received any training in what to do in case of fire.

The Imperial Food building was rectangular, about one hundred by three hundred feet. The fire began in the center of the building near a large gas-fired cooker when a hydraulic oil line in the processing room, which was being repaired, burst under increased pressure and the hose separated from its coupling. The oil spewing from the hose at high pressure was ignited by the gas flame.

The fire intensified rapidly, cutting off escape for many of the employees, who had just begun their work shift. About forty workers were in the trimming room as the fire started. Unable to reach the front doors, their normal path out of the building, they attempted to use an alternate exit but found it inoperable; another nearby door was blocked by a large truck. Many employees found their way out, and some retreated to a cooler room to avoid the acrid smoke, but eleven of the twenty-five fatalities were found in that room, suffocated by smoke. Another eleven people died in the processing room where the fire had started, on a loading dock, and in a freezer room. When the firefighters arrived, they found several other fatalities outside the building.

Following the fire, the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation found that the building was deficient in the number and arrangement of exits available. The National Fire Protection Association National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), a private organization dedicated to furthering fire safety, also investigated the fire and concluded that the inadequate exits were a significant factor in the high number of fatalities.

The NFPA’s analysis pointed out the importance of built-in protections such as fire sprinklers and detectors; the presence of such systems would have led to a very different outcome in the Hamlet fire. The NFPA also suggested that it might have been helpful if employees had been trained in the correct use of fire extinguishers, but the association also acknowledged that the rapid spread of this fire might have precluded the use of extinguishers. The NFPA stressed that the presence and operability of exits from a building are essential for workplace safety, as is a workable fire plan, practiced periodically, that trains employees to react properly in an emergency.

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) concurred that the lack of exits contributed to the large loss of life in the Hamlet fire and noted that the Imperial Food Products building was in violation of nationally recognized standards. Upon investigation, OSHA discovered similar fire hazards at other workplaces around the country. As a result, the agency sent fact sheets providing basic information on fire prevention to state agencies and fire chiefs in major metropolitan areas. OSHA also established a toll-free telephone number that employees could call to report suspected fire hazards or other dangers, such as the presence of toxic wastes, in their workplaces.

In the aftermath of the North Carolina fire, it became clear that failure to provide the number of exits required by code was a prevalent practice in industrial settings; managers often limited the number of exits to minimize pilfering by employees. Further, owners often made modifications to their buildings without considering the effects the changes would have on emergency exits. In addition to the main entrance, the Imperial Food Products plant had only two exits from which people could leave the building rapidly, and one of those was blocked at the time of the fire.

Significance

The violations found after the Imperial Food Products fire were so blatant and the results so tragic that Emmett Roe, the owner of the business, was convicted of twenty-five counts of involuntary manslaughter. The North Carolina Labor Department also imposed a fine on the company of $800,000. News of the fire was a shock to many Americans, who were puzzled by conditions so unsafe that twenty-five people died in a one-story building. Those familiar with occupational fire safety were not surprised, however. Conditions such as those at Imperial Food Products—an almost complete lack of fire protection in the building, the absence of a training program or emergency plan for employees in case of fire, and the locked exit doors—could be documented in at least one-fourth of all businesses.

After the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York, legislation was passed to protect the rights of employees against business owners who kept their workplace doors locked to keep employees inside. The Cocoanut Grove nightclub fire in Boston in 1942 resulted in laws to improve fire safety in dining and drinking establishments. The Beverly Hills Supper Club Fire in Kentucky thirty-five years later showed that what was needed was adequate enforcement of existing statutes, not more statutes.

Experts disagreed as to whether government or private industry should provide the driving force behind efforts to improve fire prevention and safety standards. Some claimed that because fires are counterproductive to profits, the business world would itself try to minimize the incidence of fires for economic reasons. Employees, on the other hand, often claimed that managers tried to push production ever higher at the expense of workplace safety.

Many laws in the United States regulate business for the greater good of employees and the public, and such regulations operate at every level of government. The federal Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970 Occupational Safety and Health Act (1970) set standards for workplace safety, but it was left to the states whether they wished to enforce the law themselves or allow the federal government to do so. North Carolina had opted to enforce OSHA regulations itself. The OSHA regulations, as well as most federal, state, and local fire safety regulations, were based on codes set by the NFPA, but enforcement of the regulations remained a problem in many cases. Like many other states, North Carolina had not taken adequate measures to enforce its fire safety laws. One state investigator admitted shortly after the fire in Hamlet that the state did not inspect plants such as the Imperial Food facility as frequently or thoroughly as was mandated by law.

The enforcement of fire codes at the county and city levels also varied widely in the United States. Although some small jurisdictions were conscientious in this regard, small fire departments normally did not enforce regulations aggressively. Lack of personnel was a primary reason for this, as was a basic lack of understanding of the fire codes. Large fire departments had their own impediments to effective enforcement, but they generally performed more effectively than smaller departments. The fire in North Carolina brought increased attention to the inadequacy of fire safety enforcement in many jurisdictions, at least in the short term. Fires;Imperial Food Products Workplace hazards Disasters;fires Imperial Food Products plant fire

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Aulette, Judy Root, and Raymond Michalowski. “Fire in Hamlet: A Case Study of State-Corporate Crime.” In Political Crime in Contemporary America: A Critical Approach, edited by Kenneth D. Tunnell. New York: Garland, 1993. Examines the fire as a crime committed by a corporation with the tacit collusion of state authorities.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kerr, Mary Lee, and Bob Hall. “Chickens Come Home to Roost.” Progressive 56 (January, 1992): 29. Describes the poultry industry’s long history of abusive practices toward employees.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. “N.C. Chicken Plant Fire Kills 25.” Facts On File 51 (September 5, 1991): 659. Discusses the cause of the fire at the Imperial Food Products plant, the fact that some doors were locked at the facility, and that North Carolina officials acknowledged a serious lack of human resources to enforce state OSHA requirements.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Klem, Thomas J. “Twenty-Five Die in Food Plant Fire.” NFPA Journal 86 (January/February, 1992): 29-35. Definitive investigative document of this disaster by the National Fire Protection Association, which is respected for its investigative impartiality and thoroughness.

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