Imperial’s Hamlet Chicken Factory Fire

Erik LoomisOn September 3, 1991, a chicken factory in Hamlet, North Carolina caught fire thanks to nonexistent safety procedures, killing 25 workers and injuring another 55. This was the largest workplace disaster in North Carolina history. This entirely avoidable accident was reminiscent of workplace disasters of the past, with open employer contempt for safety regulations and the lives of their workers.

In 1980, [the factory] was purchased by Imperial Foods… The factory had no fire alarm system. The factory was used to process chicken for fast food restaurants and pre-frozen products for grocery stores. That meant cutting, bagging, weighing, and, most importantly for this story, frying it. About three-quarters of the workers were African-Americans. Hamlet is a small town close to the South Carolina border and the worker histories reflected that. Many of these workers had grown up doing farm work in the area and for some, this was their first factory job.

Imperial’s CEO Emmett Roe had moved from Pennsylvania to the South in order to bust the unions in his plants there and move to a state with a “more favorable regulatory climate,” ie, the kind of state that won’t inspect your factories or enforce safety violations… North Carolina regulators never inspected the factory because the budget for inspections was minuscule. In 11 years of operation, it received no fire inspections… According to one survivor of the fire, the plant managers locked the door to stop workers from stealing chicken. This was the same excuse sweatshop managers gave to locking the doors at Triangle when that disaster killed 146 workers in 1911.

[T]he deep fryer caught fire after a hydraulic line to a cooking vat failed, with obvious problems with it not found because of the company’s indifferent safety culture. It spread very quickly thanks to a combination of burning cooking oil, insulation, and exploding gas lines hanging from the ceiling. It didn’t help that all of the phones inside the building were nonfunctional. The workers at the front of the plant all managed to get out. But at the back of the plant the company did not place any fire alarms. Moreover, Imperial managers not only locked all the exits but sealed the windows as well. Those workers had nowhere to go. As an old plant, it was a maze of paths inside. The smoke meant they couldn’t find their way to the front. They were doomed. Like at Triangle, which this fire reminded many of, a few workers did get out the back by breaking open a locked loading bay, but most died. On one door, near charred bodies, blackened footprints could still be seen, signs of the desperate attempt to escape. Eighteen of the dead were women. Most of the dead were African-American.

—Erik Loomis
This Day in Labor History: September 3, 1991

2 thoughts on “Imperial’s Hamlet Chicken Factory Fire

  1. I remember that fire. And I remember pointing out to assholes who hate labor movements that is what happens without good unions.

    • No, no, no! It’s just one bad apple. This is not indicative of anything! Funny thing is: the owner of the company got 20 years for a sentence — only served 4. But I know if the company had been really big, no one would have gone to jail. Well, maybe the plant manager; maybe.

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