Owners Assessed Record Fine for Fatal Chicken Plant Blaze
Owners of a Hamlet, N.C., chicken processing plant where 25 people died in a September fire were fined $808,150, a state record, on Monday for locking doors and violating other safety codes meant to protect workers.
State Labor Commissioner John Brooks said the fine sends a message to employers that the state will not tolerate similar conditions in other plants. Criminal charges are also a possibility, he said.
At a news conference to announce the penalty, Brooks denied that the state was responsible for inspecting the plant before the Sept. 3 fire at Imperial Food Products. The fire also injured 56.
“The OSHA program is not a universal inspection system . . . " Brooks said. “We have no responsibility to periodically inspect plants.”
The plant had never been checked by state or local inspectors in the 11 years it operated.
After the fire, 83 violations were found at the plant, said Frank Trogdon, who led the state’s investigation. Among the 54 willful, or most serious, violations were locked exit doors, unmarked exits, inadequate emergency lighting and workstations that were too far from exit doors.
Trogdon said more doors were needed in a cooking room where the fire broke out. Hydraulic fluid sprayed onto natural gas flames that heated a 26-foot cooking vat. The flames and smoke trapped some workers in an area with no doors and sent others running to two locked exits.
Many of the workers died of smoke inhalation in a cooler with no outside exit and loose hinges on the door.
Imperial closed its plants in Hamlet and Cumming, Ga., after the fire and has disconnected the telephone at its former Atlanta headquarters.