Twenty-five years ago Saturday, a hydraulic line in the Imperial Foods poultry processing plant in Hamlet failed, a fire resulted, and 25 innocent workers lost their lives. Another 55 were injured. And it didn’t have to happen. Exit doors were locked from the outside, and so the workers died a horrible, terrifying death.
Outrage was instant, and the owner of the plant got a 20-year prison sentence, of which he served but four years. Fines were levied, And the shoddy nature of North Carolina’s safety laws and lax oversight of such plants were exposed. State Labor Department officials had never inspected the plant; if they had it’s likely those doors would not have been locked.
Yes, there was a federal investigation and some safety steps were taken, but the federal government ultimately took over enforcement, at least to a large degree, of the state’s worker safety laws.
This anniversary of Hamlet is occasion to scrutinize the promises of Republican politicians in North Carolina who have long talked about the oppressive nature of government regulations. In fact, Republicans have set about cutting regulations they say unnecessarily hinder businesses. But the Hamlet anniversary reminds us that not all “regulation” is about the environment or fees or taxes. Much of it has to do with the public’s safety (from food products to fair rides) and with workers’ safety.
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As we remember the poor souls who perished unnecessarily in Hamlet in 1991, it is productive to remember that sound regulation might have saved them, just as it can save workers today.