Lessons from a Factory Fire ; Plant Explosion in North Carolina Raises Questions of Workplace Safety in the South

Article excerpt

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.

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. …