Lessons from a factory fire

Plant explosion in North Carolina raises questions of workplace safety in the South.

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

As the smoke cleared this weekend, wafting above the coffee shops and army-surplus stores of Kinston, N.C., people fretted about the loss of 255 jobs from the West Pharmaceutical Plant. They wondered whether the company would rebuild here after its factory exploded Wednesday afternoon with a force that rattled windows 10 miles away. But behind those worries lurked a quieter, more sobering, question for many in this town of 25,000: How did a seemingly safe workplace turn into a fireball?

Coming only 12 years and 170 miles from the second-worst American industrial accident of the 20th century - when a fire killed dozens at a Hamlet, N.C., chicken-nugget plant - last week's explosion is sparking fresh concerns about factory-worker safety, especially in the South.

Despite a horde of new workplace regulations, critics say the South's anti-union workforce and pro-industry government continue to "wink and nod" at hazardous manufacturing conditions. "It's dangerous to go to work for most of the people in this state," says Alyce Gowdy Wright, director of the North Carolina Occupational Safety and Health Project in Durham, a nonprofit workers' advocacy group.

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So far, investigators are focusing on two possible causes - a newly installed natural-gas line and a cloud of rubber dust - in the blast that killed four and injured 37 . No negligence has been found with West, a manufacturer based in Pennsylvania.

Far from rushing to judgment, the local county commission voted on Friday to give $600,000 to West to rebuild here, and a local landlord is offering free office space to company executives.

The South's industrial ethos

That beneficence is rooted in the history of the South: post-Civil War industrialists who pushed to keep wages low, converting the region from an agricultural landscape to an industrial powerhouse - forging, too, a patriarchal system in which "an iron fist lurked beneath the velvet glove," says North Carolina State University sociologist Jeff Leiter.

That ethos of brawny, even macho, self-sufficiency - and a culture where hazardous conditions are a normal part of life - has also kept all but about 4 percent of the state's workers from unionizing, though union shops tend to be safer on the whole.

A lack of criminal prosecutions allows owners to remain lax about installing guardrails and keeping exits clear, union activists say.

"In the South, legislatures have a hard time not thinking about the interests of business all the time," says Mr. Leiter.

With a halting economy and recent layoffs, concerns have intensified. Moreover, competition with unregulated workplaces overseas - as well as a sea of new federal regulations - threaten to put many factories out of business. After bearing floods, hurricanes, and massive layoffs through the 1990s, many Kinston residents see their plants as the lifeblood of their town. The $12 to $14 wages at West were some of the best around, and many of the 255 employees had been with the company since the plant opened in the early 1980s. West was the county's eighth-largest taxpayer.

When Darryl Rodgers saw the tornado of smoke on Wednesday, the Kinston truck driver had an easier time believing that an airplane had crashed than that the factory had exploded, spreading burning debris across acres of fallow tobacco plots. "Nobody around here had any idea that there was something that explosive in that building," says Mr. Rodgers, who lost two acquaintances in the accident.

At West, no clear danger

To be sure, most plant owners don't consciously put their employees at risk, says Jo Anne Borgoyne, a spokeswoman for the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). "There are some companies that always want to do the right thing, and then you have a group that do the right thing because they're afraid to get punished, and then there's a small group that just don't care," says Ms. Borgoyne.

An inspector who found 22 serious safety violations at the West plant in October said his findings were "routine" for the myriad plants that dot the Carolina countryside. The company was fined $10,000. Indeed, modern safety measures built into the West plant likely saved dozens of workers' lives, says Jay Trehy, an injury lawyer in Raleigh.

The North Carolina Labor Department, too, points out that factory deaths are declining. The death toll dropped from 234 in 2001 to 203 in 2002. Worker injuries dropped from 5.7 per 100 workers in 2001 to 4.8 last year.

Still, the 1991 Hamlet fire changed attitudes dramatically here in North Carolina. The legislature passed 14 new safety laws, including a whistle-blower provision, and boosted the inspector corps from 60 to 114.

"As a government, we had not taken steps and been as aggressive as we could have been, making sure there were clear standards and having a set of people in place to make sure those standards had been met," says North Carolina's former Speaker of the House Dan Blue (D).

As federal agents make their way through West's smoldering remains this week, that question of standards has surfaced once again. "We just hope there's no coverups, and that we find out what really happened," says Mr. Rodgers.

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