Remembering the Hamlet Fire

This year, more workers than ever became personally aware of the risks going to our jobs can have on our health.

Some of us may have spoken the words “hazard pay” or “personal protective equipment” for the first time in our working lives. Others may have negotiated for stronger safety and health protocols at our workplace through a union or other collective action.

Living and working in a pandemic has shifted our collective awareness about our rights as workers to protect our bodies and families from work-related harm.

Collective awareness is the cornerstone of a safe workplace. With heightened knowledge comes discussion among workers, and discussions are the entry way for collective action. Without open discussion, the opportunities for change diminish and our health and safety issues are hidden in plain view.

Workers are best positioned to sound alarms around health and safety and push for changes that will prevent workplace deaths and injuries because workers best understand the daily conditions of their jobs. Too often, federal, state, and local policymakers side with businesses over workers, and far too many businesses are able to skirt around safety laws simply by lying low and under the radar, avoiding the mechanisms that trigger employment law enforcement and public oversight.

“If you complained about it, you got fired.”

Twenty-nine years ago, on the day after Labor Day in 1991, 25 workers died and 55 were injured in a catastrophic fire at Imperial Food Products, a chicken processing plant in Hamlet, North Carolina that was hidden in plain view. Twelve of the workers were Black and 18 were women. Forty-nine children lost their parents.[1] Scores of community members and surviving workers suffered tremendous mental health problems for years to come.

Numerous institutions and individuals were responsible for the fire, but the underlying cause was an extremely intimidating climate that depended on a large labor pool in a community with high unemployment rates, overwhelmingly anti-worker policymaking, racist and classist disdain for Black and working-poor white workers, and a lack of jobs that paid above minimum wage.

“The managers didn’t talk to anyone like they was human,” Mary Pouncy, an Imperial Foods worker said in a documentary about the fire. “When you got three or four children, and that is all you have, you can put aside what he says.” Pouncy added, “They never had a drill, at least while I was working there. There was no sprinkler system. There was a lot that you knew that wasn’t right, but if you complained about it, you got fired.”

“A ghost operation”

Incredibly, Imperial Food Products was one of the largest employers in Hamlet, yet only a limited number of people and institutions across the city and state were aware of its existence.

According to Bryant Simon’s book The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives, the plant did not have a sign on the red brick building and most local townspeople did not know a chicken processing plant was operating in their town. In fact, in the numerous interviews Simon conducted, the overwhelming sentiment was Imperial Foods operated “like a ghost operation.”3

“It would blaze up and you could smell gas, but you still had to work.”

The machinery in the plant broke down often, which gave the workers unscheduled breaks from the rapid pace of the line, the freezing cold and the sour smells of raw chicken and hot grease.5 Workers had already experienced three fires that year, but the plant never shut down long enough to properly repair the equipment.

“They were forever working on it,” explained Mary Bryant, one of the surviving workers who spoke to a documentary film crew. “It would blaze up and you could smell gas, but you still had to work. I never had time to look for other jobs because I had to work every day.”

Due to a series of decisions that never involved workers’ input, nor made it into public record, on the day of the fire, a hydraulic hose connected to a deep fryer burst and flammable fuel caught on fire. Yellow and black smoke quickly filled the factory and workers stumbled over each other to find a nearby exit. Some hid inside a cooler.

Brad Roe, Imperial Foods’ manager and the CEO’s brother tried to call the fire department, but the line was dead. Instead, he exited the building and drove to the fire department a few blocks away.[5] He did not bring the keys to unlock the two exits that were padlocked shut.

Residents near the plant heard screams and saw smoke. They noticed the tractor trailer blocking an exit, and they woke the driver who was asleep inside his truck to move it away from the loading dock. The locked exit near the dumpster had to be pried open by city workers who happened to be working nearby with tractors that day. Due to these city workers’ quick actions, workers were able to escape through the small gap.[6] The workers who hid in the cooler were not as fortunate. Most of them died from carbon monoxide poisoning from the smoke.

“Please don’t let us die like this.”

Mary Bryant was one of the workers in the cooler who lived. She recalled, “I asked God, please don’t let us die like this. I remember somebody said, ‘If you hear me, follow my voice. Come to where you hear my voice.” She continued, “I reached out my hand towards the sound and somebody caught hold of my hand and they pulled me out.”

In total, 56 of the 81 workers on shift that day survived. Emmett Roe was charged with 25 counts of manslaughter and served time, while survivors and victims’ families were awarded settlements from wrongful death and injury lawsuits.

Imperial Food Products declared bankruptcy and closed, but the broken system that caused 25 people to die has barely been touched since. Jim Hunt, the governor of North Carolina from 1993-2001 summed up the political environment that still pervades today when he stated, “If business prospers, so will workers.” This tragedy is set against a backdrop of massive deregulation and open invitations to businesses to set up shop cheaply in North Carolina and without public oversight, after many of the region’s jobs were transferred overseas post-NAFTA.

Sweeping chages are over due

Today, the sweeping changes we need to prevent another modern-day, preventable workplace catastrophe like the Hamlet Fire are overdue. We tell the story because remembering can be a political act when we collectivize our grief and use it to build lasting structural and cultural changes.

After 25 people died in Hamlet, some changes were enacted, but not the system-wide shifts that transformed workplace safety regulations in the wake of the infamous 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York City, when 146 workers were killed under similar circumstances—facing locked exits in a city with an abundance of unemployed workers desperate for any job that would help them survive.

Described as “the fire that changed America,” heightened collective awareness drove widespread changes in workplace safety throughout the U.S. following the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire. However, our collective memories tend to isolate that tragedy as a historic anomaly, rather than seeing the movement for safe workplaces as an unfinished project that requires more collective awareness and pressure to counter state and federal governments’ indifference to worker safety.

Conester Player, a workers’ rights activist and Hamlet fire survivor, said, “There are still problems on the job. These people are going through the same things. They are not letting them form workplace committees in these factories and not letting them go to the bathroom.” She continued, “OSHA is not looking into these things. Is our state officials taking care of us or are they putting us in the dump?”

We should remember Hamlet by fighting like hell with poultry workers who are forced to work even faster amid the COVID-19 pandemic, since the USDA issued a waiversin  April, 2020 allowing many companies to speed up the lines by 25 percent. That’s 175 birds per minute for workers on the line to dismantle. This speed up directly contradicts the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 recommendations to keep workers at least six feet apart on production lines and to reduce—not increase—line speeds.

“Don’t give up.”

Our modern-day Hamlet tragedy is, unfortunately, unfolding as poultry workers, who are disproportionately workers of color, suffer staggeringly high rates of work-related injury and illness—rates 60 percent higher than the average industry. Further, nationwide over 41,000 meat and poultry workers have been infected with COVID 19 because the industry has not implemented basic safety measures  that would protect workers.  As of late August, there were no on-site COVID-19 inspections done in North Carolina’s workplaces despite over 700 complaints filed—75  of these from meatpacking plants, because the state’s business-friendly OSHA department has not issued any safety standards for COVID-19. North Carolina’s Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry has said in the past that the DOL prioritizes relationships with industries and has avoided “burdening them with regulations.”

It is never too late for sweeping, systemic changes. As Mary Bryant reminded us, “Don’t give up. Fight for your rights even if it causes you to lose your job. Do what you have to do.”

[1] Page 9

[2] Bryant Simon, The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives (Chapel Hill: UNC Press, 2017), 59.

[3] Simon, The Hamlet Fire, 13.

[4] Ibid, 67.

[5] Ibid, 6.

[6] Ibid, 7.

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