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Plant Fire Held Unlikely to Spur Major Reforms : Workplace: 25 deaths bring drive to curb job hazards but there is doubt public indignation can be sustained.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Outraged by conditions at the North Carolina poultry processing plant where 25 workers died in a fire last week, labor rights activists have begun a push to overhaul industry safety standards, but they face very tough obstacles.

After the fire at the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, N.C., labor union officers, members of Congress, civil rights activists and others mobilized to catch the wave of attention the tragedy brought and use it to focus on long-voiced complaints about hazards of the workplace.

On Thursday, the House Committee on Education and Labor will hold a hearing in Washington on the fire and to promote previously introduced legislation that would reform federal occupational safety laws.

And, here in Atlanta, a coalition of labor and civil rights activists on Monday staged a protest at Imperial Food’s headquarters, demanding that better safety precautions be taken at the plant.

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In some ways, the outcry recalls the reaction to the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire in New York, where 145 people died because of unsafe conditions, including locked doors and an absence of sprinkler systems. Similar conditions reportedly existed in Hamlet.

The fire began when hydraulic oil in a conveyor system spilled onto flames from a gas-fueled cooking unit used to fry chicken nuggets. Most of the deaths were attributed to smoke inhalation. Many of the exit doors were locked.

The plant had operated for 11 years and had not been inspected by safety officials despite reports of two previous fires.

Nevertheless, for a number of reasons, there seems little chance that the Hamlet tragedy will result in the kind of massive reform that followed the New York fire.

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“In 1911, there was no protection at all for workers in the workplace,” said Sar Levitan, who analyzes labor issues and is director of the George Washington University Center for Social Policy Studies. “That tragedy led to protection,” ranging from work-hour regulations to safety provisions. Passing expansive new labor protection laws is unlikely when old ones exist, he said.

A broad range of experts cited other factors working against significant changes in workplace laws and enforcement actions, including the declining strength of labor unions, reduction of federal involvement in and funding of state and local matters, recessionary pressures on companies, a growing incidence of “compassion fatigue” and a loss of the sense of community.

“There has been a general change in attitudes to ‘me, me, me,’ ” said Levitan, adding that he doubts that public indignation over Hamlet will be sustained.

Even as he helped organize the protest here, the Rev. Joseph Lowery, president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, expressed dismay at the lack of concern for low-paid workers, such as the 150,000 nationwide in the $20-billion-a-year chicken processing industry.

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“We’ve gotten so materialistic in this country that property is valued over human life,” he said. “It’s a sad, sad state of affairs. That’s what materialism does to you. It grinds your humaneness into the cemetery.”

Lowery and others cited what they call the “slave-like” conditions in poultry processing plants and other workplaces, such as the catfish processing plants.

Both industries have grown dramatically in the South--most notably in Arkansas, Georgia, Alabama and North Carolina--in the wake of America’s growing appetite for alternatives to red meat.

The National Broiler Council reports that it expects 19.7 billion pounds of poultry to be processed this year, up from 12 billion pounds a decade ago. In North Carolina, poultry is a $1.6-billion annual business, employing 19,000.

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The council, incidentally, is taking great pains to distance itself and its members from the Imperial plant, which is not a member. “Those familiar with our industry know that this disaster is very much the exception to our safety record,” a council statement said.

However, union officers and workers themselves--mostly black women--tell of oppressive working conditions throughout the industry, with fast work lines, stench of fowl and ammonia and chlorine, dangerous cutting tools, few breaks and a high incidence of hand and wrist injuries from repetitive motions involved in slicing chickens.

“This is the worst industry in the nation,” said Linda Cromer, director of organizing for the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store union, which represents some poultry workers but not those in Hamlet’s non-union plant. “There is a high turnover because the work is so brutal.”

But hard times make people endure even brutal work. Katie Nicholson, 38, who was rescued from the Imperial plant fire, has a 10th-grade education, two sons and a husband who was laid off from a textile mill. She worked for $5 an hour at Imperial. “I needed a job,” she said simply.

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And in Richmond County, where the Hamlet plant employed 200 people, jobs are scarce. The county unemployment rate stood at 8.1% in July, markedly higher than last year’s 4.5%.

Enforcement of worker safety laws apparently is rare in North Carolina. The state ranks at the bottom nationally in workplace inspectors, with 27 to cover 180,000 work sites.

Russ Edmonston, spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Labor, acknowledged that the state would need 64 inspectors to meet federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration standards. He cited, as reasons for the inadequacy, state budget problems and inability to attract candidates for the jobs.

Not a federal or state inspector ever checked out the Imperial plant, and no one has acknowledged that the failure to make an inspection broke any laws. Therein lies the need for change, worker advocates say.

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“If just one OSHA inspector--state or federal--had made Imperial Food Products unlock just one door, this tragedy might not have happened,” said Rep. William D. Ford (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, in announcing his panel’s hearings, which will include testimony from plant workers.

A month before the fire, Ford had introduced the OSHA Reform Act, which would mandate on-site health and safety committees that would include workers, thus empowering them to monitor and correct their own safety problems. The bill would also protect complaining workers from employers’ reprisals.

Now, as local investigators study the situation, speculation centers on whether criminal charges will be brought against plant executives for locking the doors, allegedly to prevent thefts of chicken parts, and failing to implement an evacuation plan.

“I don’t want this issue glossed over,” said Hamlet Mayor Abbie Covington. “If there are sufficient grounds for criminal charges, I want them filed.”

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Congressional researchers said the number of federal OSHA inspectors peaked at about 1,800 in 1978 but now totals about 1,100. The federal inspectors are supposed to monitor state inspectors in states like North Carolina, one of 23 that are supposed to conduct their own workplace inspections.

“The tragedy in Hamlet is directly linked to the (White House) policies of the last 10 years,” said Deborah Berkowitz, director of safety and health for the United Food and Commercial Workers International union. “I can’t imagine this is not likely to produce momentum on Capitol Hill to take a hard look at OSHA.”

However, one congressional aide, who watched the passionate outcries following accidents at U.S.-operated chemical plants in Bhopal, India, where 2,000 people died in 1984, and in Institute, W. Va., where 130 were injured the next year, played down the potential for vast, enforceable reform after Hamlet.

“This always follows upon a tragedy,” he said, “and then it’s out of the news” and out of mind.

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