On September 3, 1991 a fire in the Imperial Foods chicken processing plant in Hamlet, NC, claimed 25 lives and injured 54 employees. This event was especially noteworthy as the emergency exits were locked and thus not available for employees to exit the building during the fire.
There were 90 employees in the facility at the time of the fire, which began when a 25 foot long deep fat fryer vat apparently spontaneously ignited at around 8:30 AM. This cooker’s temperature was controlled by thermostat and was maintained at a constant 375 °F which was variable by design to 15°F either way. The fire spread rapidly, sending workers into a panic so that some suffered trauma injuries during their rush to escape. Large quantities of smoke were produced by a combination of burning soybean oil and chicken, and melting roof insulation.
The smoke was later found to be hydrocarbon-charged and therefore had the potential to disable someone within a few breaths. Additionally, several gas lines embedded in the ceiling also caught fire and exploded.
Most of those who escaped who were unharmed worked in the front of the building and got out through the unlocked main entrance, but most workers were trapped by a curtain of smoke. Others tried to escape through the locked doors by kicking them down, but without success; most of the survivors from the rear of the building got out via a loading bay. The bay was originally blocked by a tractor-trailer, but three workers went into the rear of the truck and pounded on the walls until they were heard by rescuers who moved the vehicle. Others escaped when several workers managed to break open a few of the doors, though for many this came too late.
Imperial’s owners usually kept the doors of the chicken plant padlocked and the windows boarded. This was done to prevent people from stealing chickens, vandalizing the premises, or committing other petty criminal acts. The Hamlet plant had had three previous non-fatal fires, but no action was taken to prevent recurrence or to unlock the doors. The plant had been hit by fires before Imperial took over as well, although these, too, were non-fatal. The plant had no fire alarm system to warn workers further back in the plant, and there were no sprinklers anywhere in the building.
Emmett J. Roe, owner of Imperial Foods Products Inc.; his son Brad, who was operations manager for the company; and plant manager James N. Hair all surrendered to face prosecution on March 13, 1992, and were charged with non-negligent manslaughter. There was no trial. Instead on September 15, 1992, owner Roe senior pleaded guilty to 25 counts of involuntary manslaughter while his son and another man went free as part of a plea bargain. It was Roe senior who had personally ordered the doors to be locked from the outside. He received a prison sentence of 19 years and 11 months.
The sentence is unpopular among many of the workers and their families who point out that it amounts to less than a year for each dead person. Roe first became eligible for parole in March 1994, and was released just under four years into his sentence.
Imperial Foods was fined $808,150 for offenses such as the locked doors and inadequate emergency lighting. The amount is comparatively small compared to federal penalties that can total millions because the state administers its own safety program.
The Hamlet Chicken Plant fire provides many examples of “what not to do.” When the final investigative report was complete, 10 recommendations were made:
- Life safety codes must be enforced. Proper enforcement of existing regulations must occur in future.
- Cooking areas must be separately partitioned from other employee work areas. Cooking operations in food processing plants carry a high risk of fire, and so must be separated from the rest of the building, and from as many workers as possible.
- Building exits in wet-type operations should have double emergency lighting, one positioned above the door and one low to the floor. Because the work areas were cooled to comply with food preservation laws, humidity was high, so-called “wet conditions”. These conditions cause particularly heavy smoke, obscuring much high-level emergency lighting.
- High-pressure equipment maintenance and repairs must be limited to factory-trained personnel and specifications. Maintenance personnel working on high-pressure machinery, such as the maintenance employee who conducted the faulty modification to the hydraulic hose in the plant, must be trained by personnel from the factory that supplied the equipment.
- High-pressure equipment in probable incident areas should have built-in catastrophic shutdown valves. This would reduce the probability of accidents in high-risk areas by shutting down machinery should a fault occur.
- Negative air flow systems in these facilities could enhance safety by being modified to also accomplish smoke evacuation. Many similar plants have this equipment, which is designed to quickly purge the air of toxic fumes in the event of accidental release of ammonia. The report recommends modifying the equipment to also pull heavy smoke away from lower areas.
- State and federal inspectors from various departments should be cross-trained. Had the food inspector reported the problems he saw, the disaster may have been prevented despite the lack of other safety inspections. Such personnel should be trained to recognize major problems and to report them to the relevant authorities.
- Establish a “worry free” line of communications for industry employees. Workers inside the Hamlet plant were afraid to say anything about safety conditions for fear of being fired. To overcome such problems, states should establish systems of anonymous reporting of problems by workers.
- The number of OSHA safety inspectors must be increased. The team of inspectors was hugely overburdened at the time of the accident, and the report says that the number of inspectors requires increasing to solve the problem.
- Emergency exit drills must be incorporated into industry policies. This would allow quick evacuation of premises like the Hamlet chicken plant.
Could these points have saved lives? Without doubt! How does your work site measure up? Even if your not locking exits doors, you may be missing some of the more subtle safety issues that put employees at risk. Conduct an audit and uncover those safety issues today
Many thanks to the OSHA Navigator for this post.
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