When Deregulation is Deadly
by Bryant Simon
December 20, 2017
On September 3, 1991, the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina burst into flames. Twenty-five people died, trapped behind the locked doors of the red-brick factory. Most of the victims were women; many were women of color, most were single moms. Another sixty people were injured, and the blast left more than fifty children orphaned. Local officials called the fire an accident, but the women and men who worked at Imperial had been made vulnerable by the factory’s owners as well as public policy. Their gruesome deaths came, in no small part, as the result of pushes to slash oversight budgets, wipe regulations from the books, and become lax in the enforcement of health and safety laws, especially those that might have protected people left precarious by declining rates of unionization and pushed to the economic and political margins of society.
Worse, the “Hamlet Fire” came eight decades after the infamous Triangle ShirtWaist fire in New York City, which 146 workers—most of them immigrant women—died in a locked, burning factory. This wasn’t supposed to happen anymore.
The nation’s workplaces were supposed to be safeguarded by decades of measures put in place by Progressive reformers, New Dealers, and even moderate Nixonian Republicans. The lives of those victims, those poor white immigrant women, and the lives of many white male workers, were deemed, for a time, worthy of protection. But as the nation’s workforce changed, as women and people of color occupied more and more manufacturing and service jobs, that commitment started to ebb. The economic restructuring of the 1970s further eroded support for government safeguards. During the Reagan Years, calls for cost-cutting and de-regulation promised an economic revival. While these actions boosted profits, they brought the country, and especially the working poor, back to the past, back to the Gilded Age that guarded only a few lives and rendered the rest disposable. Today, the same calls echo in the halls of power. The nation’s workers will certainly bear the true costs of the Trump Administration’s hasty and haphazard rush to deregulation. After all, those who forget the past run the risk of repeating it; really of imposing it on others.
What Happened after Hamlet
Within hours, journalists learned that Hamlet’s chicken-processing factory had never been inspected—not by local, state, or federal officials—though state law mandated city fire department inspections. The local fire chief claimed his department had no resources or funding for this kind of oversight, even though there had already been two blazes in the Imperial Food Products plant. OSHA, the national workplace safety agency created under President Nixon, had never visited either, despite other Imperial locations’ serious safety violations. The agency had fewer than 40 full-time factory inspectors in North Carolina, and it would have taken them 75 years to visit every workplace in the state. That essentially meant employers no longer had to abide by safety measures. And the women on the line in Hamlet cranked out box after box of cheap chicken tenders behind blocked fire exits and locked emergency doors.
Sustained media attention following the fire led North Carolina law-makers to enact a slate of reforms, including a whistleblower measure, funding for more OSHA inspectors, and requirements that local fire departments inspect factories and draw up detailed fire-fighting plans should the unthinkable occur.
The changes mattered at the local level, but they didn’t fundamentally change the system that allowed the Hamlet fire to happen. That is, the credo that promises limited government, deregulated business, more jobs, and cheap consumer goods remains untouched. It’s as if the nation has adopted Wal-Mart’s slogan, “Save money. Live better.” It’s a system predicated on forgetting.
Consider the short-term memory of North Carolina Congressman Case Ballenger. In 1991, he championed reforms to make sure a tragedy like the Hamlet fire didn’t happen again. Just two years later, he called for deep cuts to OSHA’s budget, railing against the agency’s “gestapo tactics” and claiming they cost business too much money and threatened too many jobs.
Strategic Amnesia and the Imperiled American Worker
The cycle of tragedy, media and public outrage, cosmetic change, and a return to business as usual has played out so many times: after the Chicago Heat Wave of 1995, the Upper Branch Mining accident in West Virginia in 2010, after the Philadelphia building collapse in 2013. These aren’t artifacts of the past, but hallmarks of strategic amnesia, profits over people. Cheap analysis bolsters cheap government; cheap government cheapens citizens’ lives.
Under president Trump, OSHA and other agencies are subject to a tired gospel of growth through de-regulation and turning a blind eye to the past.
More than a year into Trump’s presidency, OSHA is without a head. Trump’s nominee for the position, Scott Mungo, is a former Fed-Ex and Chamber of Commerce official who has, according Senator Patty Murray of Washington, “consistently opposed stronger safety and health protections for workers.” At his confirmation hearings, Mungo could not name a single OSHA regulation he’d ever supported.
The only real path away from forgetting is remembering. Remembering that cheap goods hide their true costs by devaluing the lives of low-wage workers, more often than not these days women. Remembering that regulations are good investments that counter the sometimes short-sighted and self-serving decisions employers can be tempted to make. Remembering that chicken nuggets aren’t as valuable as human lives. Remembering that the role of government must be the protection of people as much as the protection of profit. Forgetting is a tragic fuel.
–Bryant Simon is Professor of History at Temple University and the author of The Hamlet Fire: A Tragic Story of Cheap Food, Cheap Government, and Cheap Lives
— Photo of the Hamlet fire aftermath from the AP