On Sept. 3, 1991, workers at Imperial Food Products in the small town of Hamlet heard a loud bang and then a hissing sound, as if a missile had just been launched inside the facility.
Moments later, a wall of flames swept through the decrepit brick chicken processing plant, which had never been inspected in its 11 years of operation. Workers who rushed to the emergency exits found they had been padlocked from the outside. Twenty-five workers, many of them single mothers, died behind the locked doors of the Richmond County plant.
Journalists, including those at The News & Observer, trying to piece together what happened that day focused on a string of tragic errors. The locked exits. The sprinkler system that failed. And the faulty hydraulic hose that sprayed flammable fluids in every direction, igniting the walls and ceiling.
Yet these accounts obscure the deeper economic and political roots of the tragedy in Hamlet, still the largest industrial accident in North Carolina history.
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As Temple University history professor Bryant Simon argues in his prodigiously researched and penetrating analysis, “The Hamlet Fire,” the blaze was the product of four decades of deregulation in the poultry industry, driven by Americans’ insatiable appetite for cheap consumer goods.
“Again and again, those with power valued cheap food, cheap government and cheap lives over … strong oversight and regulation,” he writes.
Simon spent six years researching his book, relying on investigative reporting from The News & Observer and The Charlotte Observer and interviews with former workers at the chicken plant.
He draws a direct line between the fire in Hamlet and the disappearance of railroad and industrial jobs. The dislocations turned this once bustling freight rail hub, with stable and secure jobs, into a rural backwater. The weakened labor market made it possible for companies such as Imperial Food Products to command more control over workers, silencing those who complained of low pay and hazardous working conditions.
Like thousands of other manufacturers that relocated to the South in the 1980s, Imperial Food Products exploited the region’s lax enforcement of workplace safety laws.
Even though the plant caught fire three times between 1980 and 1987, no safety inspector had ever set foot in the factory about 100 miles southwest of Raleigh. Complaints of maggots and lice were ignored by the state’s workplace agency. And when investigators went digging for the plant’s Labor Department records after the fire, they came up empty. The company had never registered with the N.C. Occupational Safety and Health office or the state Department of Labor. Technically, Imperial Food Products was not even authorized to be in business.
Sadly, there is little that is unique about the Hamlet fire. The tragedy bears striking similarities to a series of horrifying industrial disasters in recent years. In 2013, a garment factory near Dhaka, Bangladesh, collapsed, killing more than 1,100 workers. That same year, a fire tore through a poultry processing plant in northeast China, killing 120 people. As Simon notes, each of these tragedies occurred in remote areas where the factories could operate without interference from labor groups or government regulators.
“The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives”
By Bryant Simon
The New Press, 303 pages