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Agencies create second workplace hazards plan to fix what the original missed

Rescue workers help victims outside the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, N.C., after a 1991 fire left at least 25 people dead and more than 54 injured. (Richmond County Daily Journal)

Annette Zimmerman’s pain, even after three decades, is a constant reminder of being trampled while trying to escape a chicken-processing plant fire that killed 25 of her co-workers.

She survived — but after multiple physical and emotional traumas, including 11 operations and 37 pieces of surgical hardware in her neck and spine, she still struggles to recover.

And the federal government has continued struggling to respond in a meaningful way to that 1991 Imperial Food Products tragedy in Hamlet, N.C.

Last month, the Labor Department’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Agriculture Department’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) approved an agreement designed to improve the detection of workplace hazards.

That looks like progress, but it’s also a reminder that a similar 1994 Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the two agencies, signed in reaction to the fire, was mostly neglected. Competing agency cultures and missions hampered collaboration and blunted the MOU’s attempt to break through silo-like, bureaucratic thinking.

The agreements cover much of the same ground. Each was meant to facilitate the reporting of workplace hazards by food inspectors, because Ag’s FSIS inspectors, in charge of food safety, are in food plants regularly — far more often than those from OSHA, who look for threats to worker safety. (Days after the fire an Agriculture spokesperson told the Charlotte Observer the accident “doesn’t fall under our responsibility at all.”) One difference is this year’s document requires FSIS inspectors to be trained within 120 days in workplace hazard recognition and in making referrals to OSHA. It expires in five years.

Rep. David E. Price (D-N.C.) pushed the agencies to update the decades-old memo after the Assembly, a North Carolina digital magazine, exposed the inaction in a retrospective piece last year. Price admonished both agencies in an October 2021 letter that said “it seems clear that the 1994 MOU has been largely, if not completely, ignored.” He hopes the August agreement will highlight continuing workplace hazards and lead to safer environments for workers.

“That’s the bottom line,” he said by phone.

Although FSIS did not provide evidence that its inspectors reported workplace hazards following the 1994 agreement, as Price and reporters, including from The Washington Post, requested, the agency insisted the MOU “between the two agencies was implemented.” In an email late Friday, FSIS said its employees were trained and OSHA posters were displayed with a hotline number FSIS inspectors could use to report safety hazards. The statement did not say if FSIS ever sent a safety hazard report to OSHA.

Without mentioning political, media and watchdog pressure on the departments, a Labor spokesperson said “the agencies thought it was important to develop this new MOU in light of changes in workplaces and in recognition of new and emerging workplace hazards, as well as those well known in the meat and poultry industry. The MOU demonstrates a recommitment to the agencies’ shared goal of protecting the safety and health of workers in FSIS-regulated establishments.”

That “recommitment” means little to Zimmerman, because the initial commitment meant little to the agencies. She doesn’t expect the current agreement will be implemented any more than the first one was, not “until something more tragic than the Imperial fire” forces a more significant federal response.

Zimmerman’s doubts are backed by government watchdog reviews of the agencies’ inertia. Although “poultry slaughter and processing is one of the most hazardous industries in the United States,” according to a 2017 Government Accountability Office (GAO) audit, “collaboration between OSHA and FSIS is limited and has improved little since we recommended in 2005 that the two agencies strengthen their 1994 MOU on worker safety. Since FSIS is already present in many plants, the federal government is missing out on a cost-effective opportunity to further protect the safety and health” of workers.

GAO repeatedly urged the agencies to strengthen the 1994 document and in 2005 determined that “agency efforts to implement this MOU had lapsed.” GAO cited three areas where the agencies failed: a process for FSIS inspectors to inform OSHA of “serious hazards facing plant workers,” training of FSIS staff in workplace hazard recognition and an agreement to coordinate standards and exchange information.

Major responsibility for implementing the agreement rests with FSIS because its inspectors are in food-processing plants far more often, and the thrust of the agreements is for FSIS report workplace hazards to OSHA. That did not happen.

“The MOU was never implemented by FSIS,” said Debbie Berkowitz, a former OSHA chief of staff and senior policy adviser during the Obama administration, adding “they had no interest in implementing it. The FSIS is incredibly close to the industry, they are a captured agency.”

OSHA doesn’t look good either.

“OSHA outreach and training could have helped to bridge cultural gaps and challenges and sent a clearer message to external agencies” about interagency cooperation, Labor’s Office of Inspector General reported in March. “It is particularly important that OSHA clarify these issues of possible miscommunication and misunderstanding with FSIS enforcement personnel as they play a prominent role in meat and poultry processing facilities.”

In the Hamlet case, FSIS might have contributed to the tragedy. In May 1991, four months before the fire, an Agriculture Department inspector approved locking a plant door. The reason given on a FSIS “process deficiency record” was to stop flies from entering the plant.

“You don’t lock doors, all doors, in a plant for fly control,” said Woody Gunter, a lawyer who represented many of the victims. “You put fly strips up or you put a screen door up or you put a big industrial fan up.”

Zimmerman suspects racism, more than flies, was the reason the doors were locked. The deceased White owner of the now-defunct factory unjustly suspected the predominantly Black workforce of stealing chickens, she recalled. A prosecutor said the owner, who was sent to prison on involuntary manslaughter counts, personally approved locking a door, according to the Assembly.

Doubting the notion of locking — not just closing — exits to keep flies out, Zimmerman wondered, “what kind of flies could open up that big door.”

Under “preventive measures” noted after a 1991 plant inspection, the FSIS inspector wrote: “door is now locked.”