This week marks the 30th anniversary of a tragic fire at Imperial Food Products – a chicken processing plant – where 25 workers lost their lives. Egress doors in the plant had been padlocked to prevent employee theft, and when the fire occurred, many building occupants were unable to escape quickly. [Refer to my post about the 20th anniversary for more information about this fire.]
At the time of the fire, the necessary code requirements were in place to ensure free egress, and compliance could have saved dozens of lives. Padlocked egress doors were not allowed by code 30 years ago, and they are not code-compliant today. In almost all cases, egress doors must allow building occupants to exit without a key, tool, special knowledge, or effort, and with one motion to unlatch the door.
What contributed to the Imperial Food Products tragedy was the fact that state safety inspectors had never visited the building – in 11 years of operation. In addition, inspection reports showed that a USDA inspector responsible for overseeing the handling and processing of chicken, had approved the locking of an exit door to keep flies out of the building.
This led to a 1994 agreement between the U.S. Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety and Inspection Service (USDA FSIS), which required USDA inspectors to be trained to report serious workplace hazards to OSHA. This makes a lot of sense because the USDA inspectors are often in these facilities daily. But according to an article in The Assembly, in the last 27 years there has been no evidence of the USDA forwarding a written notification about worker safety concerns to OSHA.
You can read the full article at theassemblync.com, but here is an excerpt:
At one federal agency, the lessons of Hamlet never took root.
While a state safety inspector had never visited the Imperial building, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) food-safety inspectors were there every day to check on the quality of the chicken—and even approved locking a door to keep flies out. Politicians of both parties were aghast that a government inspector would endorse locking an exit door, which violated state and federal law.
USDA, which said it had no responsibility for workplace safety, relented under pressure. In early 1994, it signed an agreement saying its inspectors would be trained to report “serious workplace hazards affecting plant employees.” USDA inspectors were to report the hazards to their bosses, who would report them to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).
But that never happened. In the 27 years since the agreement was signed, The Assembly has found no evidence that USDA has ever forwarded a written complaint involving worker safety anywhere in the nation to OSHA.
One of the principal lessons of the Hamlet tragedy—that government inspectors of all types should be trained to recognize and report serious safety hazards—was largely disregarded.
Personally, I think cross-training of inspectors could vastly improve the safety of workers and other building occupants, but clearly the agreement between the USDA and OSHA did not have the intended results. What do you think? Should inspectors tasked with ensuring the safety of chicken processing, for example, be expected to report hazards in the workplace?