On September 3, 1991, Imperial Food Products in Hamlet, North Carolina, a rumbling one-story factory that made chicken tenders for fast food restaurants, burst into flames. Twenty-five people died that day. Many were trapped inside the plant behind locked doors. One was double-bolted from the outside.
Eight decades after a similar deadly fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in New York City, this wasn’t supposed to happen. The nation’s workplaces were supposed to be safe. But the push for de-regulation begun during the Reagan years brought us back to the past and that is where we remain in this country as protections for workers are viewed by many, including central figures in the Trump administration from the President on down, with skepticism.
Within hours of the Hamlet tragedy, journalists figured out that the factory had never been inspected, not by local, state, or federal officials. State law mandated that the city fire department inspect workplaces plants within its jurisdiction, but that never happen. The chief said he didn’t have the resources or the funding. He said this despite the fact that Imperial had had two previous fires at that location in his town. OSHA never knocked on the Imperial plant door either, despite the fact that the company’s Pennsylvania branch had twice been cited for serious safety violations. In 1991, North Carolina’s state-run OSHA had less than 30 full-time factory inspectors. With these numbers, it would have taken the agency charged with ensuring workplace safety more than 75 years to visit every one of the state’s workplaces. Given this pathetic level of oversight, a company like Imperial pretty much knew it could lock its doors and never get caught.
In the wake of the fire, and sustained media attention, North Carolina law-makers enacted a slew of reforms. They passed a whistleblower measure, funded more OSHA inspectors, and insisted that local fire departments inspect factories and draw up detailed fire-fighting plans in the case of an emergency. (These contingency plans didn’t exist in the case of Imperial Food Products.)
The changes mattered, but not where it really counted. Unlike the Triangle tragedy that discredited the dog-eat-dog thinking of the Gilded Age and helped to usher in the Progressive Era of reform and regulation, the Hamlet fire didn’t change the larger conversation. It didn’t alter, at least not fundamentally, the set of ideas that allowed the fire to happen. That way of thinking promised that cheap government would provide cheap goods for everyone, and that this exchange, which includes dangerous and low-paid work and salty, fat-filled foods, was, in the end, a worthwhile social bargain. Delivery these cheap goods to everyone requires limited regulation and the uneven application of the law; but it also requires forgetting.
In 1991, North Carolina Congressman Cass Ballenger decried the neglect that led to the Hamlet fire and called for reforms to make sure something like this didn’t happen again. Two years later, he had seemingly forgotten the reasons why two dozen people got trapped inside that plant and choked to death. In 1993, Ballenger pushed for deep cuts to OSHA’s budget. He railed against what he called the agency’s “gestapo tactics,” saying that regulations cost business too much and threatened too many jobs. This was the same kind of talk that made sure that no safety or fire official ever stepped foot inside the Imperial plant in the lead-up to the fire.
Ballenger’s hasty turnabout represents an all-too-common pattern of forgetting, of strategic amnesia to keep government, labor, and goods as cheap as possible.
Accidents happen. People die. Commentators point out how regulations and a stricter application of the laws on the books could have prevented these deaths. Lawmakers make a few changes. But then things go back to normal. Regulations are discredited and portrayed as costly threats to business and jobs and unnecessary expenses that will hurt consumers and shackle the market. That’s what happened after the Chicago Heat Wave, after the collapse of a building in Philadelphia, after the mining accident in Upper Branch, West Virginia, and perhaps, this is what will happen after that ghastly apartment building fire earlier this year in London that claimed eight-one lives.
And this is what’s happening now at OSHA and other agencies under Trump. More than 200 days into this presidency, OSHA still doesn’t have a head, and those in control are systematically pushing the ideas of cheap relaxing their approach to occupational safety and amplifying the voices of business over safety advocates.
The only answer to the willful forgetting of the consequences of deregulation is remembering, remembering that regulations are good investments and the best way to save lives. We need to remember that cheap hides its costs and propensity to nearly inevitable accidents. And we need to remember, as people did when the conversation changed after the Triangle fire, that regulations and the enforcement of safety measures might cost a little more up-front, but they are worth it for everyone. That is the lesson of the Hamlet Fire, remembering that is the only way to honor the lives lost in that place twenty-six years ago.
Bryant Simon, a Temple University history professor who earned his Ph.D. at UNC-Chapel Hill, is the author of a new book on the Hamlet disaster, “The Hamlet Fire.”