RALEIGH — Today marks the 20th anniversary of our state's worst industrial disaster, the horrible fire at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet that killed 25 workers and injured 56 others.
After gas burners ignited a ruptured hydraulic line, panicked employees rushed for the emergency exit doors only to find some of them padlocked. Rescue crews found bodies around the locked doors and in the freezer where workers fled in a futile effort to escape the heat and smoke.
In its 11 years of operation, the plant had never received an occupational health and safety inspection.
This Labor Day, let's focus on making the workplace safe. After the fire in Hamlet, our state strengthened its workplace safety laws and their enforcement, but we still have a long way to go to ensure that no worker has to decide between his or her safety and a paycheck.
Before the federal Occupational Health and Safety Act was passed, an average of 38 American workers died on the job every day. Through the work of OSHA and other health and safety regulations, that number has been reduced to 11.9 deaths per day. It is still too high a toll.
We need a stronger and smarter system of regulations that recognizes that work is changing and our protections need to change with it. But many Republicans and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce are calling for exactly the opposite - targeting OSHA and life-saving safety regulations for cuts. They argue that big businesses can be trusted, so we should repeal the protections we have in place. They claim that over-regulation has caused our economy to flatline, and that rebuilding the economy is as easy as removing "burdensome" regulation. They believe that deregulation is the silver bullet to creating jobs.
But history reveals that deregulation has been a massive economic failure. Look no further than the financial crisis caused by Wall Street. Under Chamber-backed deregulation, big corporations and CEOs were allowed free rein while Wall Street gambled with our economy, eviscerated the housing market and left record joblessness in its wake.
As we struggle to rebuild from the economic crisis, it's clear that having strong regulations is crucial for protecting ordinary Americans, both on and off the job.
Besides the obvious safety benefits, there are also economic benefits. The Office of Management and Budget reviewed regulation spending over the past 10 years and found that the economic benefits consistently outweighed the costs. It's common sense. If workers are protected and operate in a safe work environment, then employers don't have to deal with lost productivity or worry about preventable accidents destroying their property.
In the past we've used hindsight to guide our regulatory policy. Too often we don't notice the protective benefits regulations provide until a tragedy happens, usually because of lack of regulations or good enforcement. Safety regulations must be proactive and preventative so that loss of human life, businesses and property isn't a necessary catalyst to creating strong rules and necessary enforcement.
Many people talk about creating jobs, but the kinds of jobs we are creating are also important. Should anyone in America today be in danger at the workplace simply because they need to work? As a country, are we comfortable with creating jobs where the worker has to worry about coming home injured or, worse, not at all?
There are those who would seek to use the fragile economic recovery as an excuse to cut necessary protections on the job. But low-wage, dangerous jobs will not help rebuild our economy in the long term. The jobs that helped us become a great nation were good-paying, safe jobs with benefits, which allowed workers to raise a family and become part of a community. To create an economy that values the middle class and to ensure that no one has to wake up nervous to go to work, we should stop the push towards deregulation to increase a company's bottom line.
Holding companies accountable and giving them guidance on how to protect their valuable assets including their workers is not just good for workers, it's good for business. Only when we put people and families first can we rebuild an economy that works for all.
MaryBe McMillan is secretary-treasurer of the North Carolina state AFL-CIO.