HAMLET — Nothing focused more scrutiny on the safety of North Carolina workers than the 1991 chicken plant fire that killed 25 people in Hamlet.
It was the worst industrial accident in state history. At a plant that had never been inspected by state OSHA officials, workers died struggling to get out of doors that had been locked to prevent the theft of chicken nuggets.
Threatened with a federal takeover of their workplace safety program, state Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials doubled the number of inspectors and promised to get tough on employers who flouted rules.
Twenty years later, however, there are signs that the progress has begun to slip.
N.C. OSHA inspections and citations have dropped sharply. Total citations sank to about 10,400 last fiscal year - the lowest number in 17 years. Inspections are at their lowest level since 2001.
And since the mid-1990s, the agency's staffing has failed to keep pace with the growth in the state's workforce.
Workplace safety advocate Tom O'Connor, who heads the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said North Carolina's OSHA program is stronger than before the fire. "It was a big wake-up call," he said. "But I think a lot of the promises of really overhauling the program and making it a truly effective deterrent have just not come about."
N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry and other Labor Department leaders declined to be interviewed for this story. But in written answers to the Observer's questions, Berry said North Carolina is recognized for having one of the nation's top OSHA programs.
"When you look at the big picture in North Carolina, there is no disputing the state has made significant progress," she wrote. "I can tell you workplaces are safer now."
Berry, a Republican who was first elected to her position in 2000, points to North Carolina's steadily declining workplace injury and illness rates as evidence that the state's approach is working. North Carolina's rates are at an all-time low and are below those in most other states.
But a 2008 Charlotte Observer investigation showed that the injury numbers aren't always accurate. Regulators rely on companies to report all serious workplace injuries, but it's an honor system. In North Carolina and elsewhere, regulators rarely crack down on companies that fail to do so, the newspaper found.
Other safety trends have been mixed. After reaching a low in 2009, workplace deaths in North Carolina climbed more than 40 percent last year. There were 48 deaths in 2010 - up from 34 the previous year.
Safety advocates contend that workers are endangered by a pro-business approach at the N.C. Department of Labor.
State regulators rarely use their toughest enforcement tools. Violations deemed to be "willful" can lead to stiff penalties and can cost companies lucrative contracts. But in North Carolina, fewer than one of every 1,000 OSHA violations have been deemed willful over the past decade.
Last year, financial penalties rose to $5.9 million - the highest in years. But regulators still typically impose smaller fines than most of their counterparts nationally.
In fiscal year 2010, the average penalty for serious violations in North Carolina was $884 - about 9 percent less than the national average, according to an AFL-CIO report.
Berry offered one reason fines are lower: Inspectors in North Carolina investigate more small businesses than those in many other states - and the rules provide a reduction in penalties for small employers.
As labor secretary, Berry is responsible for ensuring that companies follow workplace safety rules. A former co-owner of a company that makes spark plug wires, she has adopted a cooperative approach with employers. She says she sees no evidence that high fines make job sites safe.
O'Connor, the safety advocate, said that although North Carolina often works with companies to help them improve workplace conditions, it's "reluctant to use that big stick when necessary."
"Anytime you have a lot of workplaces and few inspectors ... and penalties are weak, you certainly have the potential for another tragedy like Hamlet," he said.
'Everyone was hollering'
It was shortly before 8:30 a.m. on Sept. 3, 1991, when chaos erupted inside a windowless brick building about 100 miles southwest of Raleigh. A ruptured hydraulic line sprayed flammable fluid onto a deep fat fryer at the Imperial Food Products plant, setting off a fireball and filling the plant with smoke.
Conester Williams, who was working on the line that day, remembers the balls of fire that shot across the plant floor. She and her co-workers ran to a door but found it locked. By the time it was opened, two of her close friends had already died.
"We couldn't open the door," she said. "One boy beat a hole in the wall. Everyone was hollering for help. It did no good."
Jerry Scannell, who headed the federal OSHA at the time, remembers traveling to Hamlet that day and speaking with a worker who managed to break through a locked door as smoke threatened to suffocate him and his co-workers.
The employee broke his arm but saved 25 workers in the process, Scannell said. "But for him, there would have been 50 who died," Scannell told the Observer in 2007.
State OSHA inspectors found more than 80 safety violations.
But some of the toughest criticism was directed at the regulators themselves.
The Hamlet plant, which made chicken nuggets and marinated chicken breasts sold at fast-food restaurants and grocery stores, had never been inspected by the state Labor Department during its 11 years of operation.
After the fire, the federal government faulted the state's occupational safety program, saying it had too few inspectors and wasn't finding enough serious violations. The U.S. labor secretary threatened to take over the program if the state didn't hire more staff, conduct more inspections and re-evaluate how it classifies violations.
From 1990 to 1993, the state more than doubled the number of workplace safety inspectors, bringing the total to 115. That transformed the state's occupational safety program into one of the nation's largest.
North Carolina continues to have more OSHA inspectors than all but a few states. Georgia, a state with a slightly larger population, has less than a third as many inspectors, the N.C. Labor Department notes.
A diminished focus
But other data suggest North Carolina's safety push has waned:
The number of workplace safety inspectors has remained flat since 1993, despite 19 percent growth in the state's workforce. North Carolina has 114 inspectors - one fewer than it had in 1993, the year the state completed its expansion of OSHA.
While North Carolina is better staffed than most other states, it still falls well short of benchmarks set by the International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency that seeks globally recognized labor rights. That group recommends one inspector for every 10,000 workers. North Carolina has about one inspector for every 34,000 workers.
Berry said she's concerned that federal cutbacks may cause the state to lose positions, and that she expects no significant increases in government funding anytime soon. "We can't be in every workplace, just like policemen can't be on every street corner," she wrote.
N.C. OSHA conducted 4,500 inspections in fiscal year 2010, the lowest number since 2001.
Berry acknowledged that inspections are down but said inspectors are still visiting more work sites than they did during the eight years of her predecessor's tenure, when Democrat Harry Payne was labor commissioner. In Berry's tenure, the average number of annual citations - about 13,000 - is almost identical to that for the previous administration, she said.
An audit by the U.S. Labor Department last year found that North Carolina downplayed serious safety problems, issued weak fines to violators and failed to properly handle whistle-blower complaints.
The state Labor Department said in response that it would "make adjustments that are in the best interest of North Carolina."
The federal findings echoed many of the conclusions in the Observer's 2008 stories.
State Sen. Dan Blue, who was House speaker in the early 1990s, led an effort to reform workplace safety efforts after the Hamlet fire.
Told of the Observer's latest findings, Blue said he found the decline in inspections "troubling." He said companies should not be overly regulated, but he favors reviewing the state OSHA program to ensure that workplaces are properly inspected and appropriately penalized when violations occur.
"You need to have the inspections to ensure there is the culture of compliance," Blue said. "You hope that they don't turn up violations, but it's a way of reinforcing the importance of a culture of workplace safety for all of the employees."
Department officials have said they target dangerous plants and industries for inspections.
Records show department officials have increased their scrutiny of the poultry industry, where the Observer's 2008 investigation found widespread safety problems. The number of inspections at the state's chicken and turkey plants rose from six in 2007 to 22 last year.
Cause for concern
But major accidents still happen.
In January, an ammonia leak forced the evacuation of about 800 residents living near a Hoke County turkey processing plant run by House of Raeford, a company with a history of chemical safety violations. One worker was hospitalized after a mechanical failure sent about 6,000 pounds of the toxic chemical into the air.
N.C. OSHA cited the company for 43 serious violations after that accident and has proposed fines of $139,500. House of Raeford is contesting the citations.
Ammonia - used as a refrigerant in meat-packing plants - can cause serious respiratory problems and even death.
On Aug. 16, another ammonia leak at the Pilgrim's Pride poultry plant near Marshville forced the evacuation of 550 employees and 25 families nearby. OSHA is investigating.
Williams, the Hamlet survivor, said she worries about the trends.
She remembers struggling to breathe and talk because of all the smoke she inhaled. She hopes another disaster isn't on the horizon.
"I don't think people are paying close attention like they should," she said, her voice still hoarse. "I don't think they'll ever do that." Staff researcher Maria David contributed.