Hamlet fire records pried from labor department

“A Temple University professor wants to hear what survivors of a 1991 fire at Hamlet’s Imperial Foods plant said to labor department investigators.

“But Bryant Simon’s request to look at witness accounts has been pending at the N.C. Department of Labor for nearly a year and a half.

“ ‘There’s no other way to get this information if you’re a historian,’ Simon said. ‘Hamlet was 21 years ago, and there’s virtually no records available.’

“Simon plans a book about the culture of cheapness that surrounded the plant – the fast-food chicken tenders the workers were making, the low pay they received and the shortcuts taken around labor laws. The voices of the surviving workers that spoke to the N.C. Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigators are key, Simon said.

“ ‘The forces that are shaping our own lives blow up in Hamlet,’ said Simon, who was attending graduate school in 1991 at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. ‘It’s an early indicator of the world we’re living in now that’s build around the idea of cheap.’

“Simon contacted N.C. Policy Watch about his public records impasse. When Policy Watch inquired in early October, the agency said it will begin transcribing the numerous hand-written statements of witnesses.

“Many of the statements need to be transcribed in line with a state law that requires the labor department to mask the identity (and handwriting) of witnesses to workplace safety issues.

“He’s glad to finally be getting the information he needs, but said the experience has left him wondering what encounters other scholars will have.”

— From “NC open records delay stymies historian” in NC Policy Watch 


A sign, a door, a connection to past tragedy

“When newspapers reported in 1991 that a fire in a Hamlet, North Carolina, chicken-processing plant had killed 25 workers who were trapped by locked doors, labor historians  recalled the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist fire in New York City, in which 146 garment workers were killed. It was a tragedy that helped bring about modern worker-safety laws.

“We have very little [at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History]  that tells the Triangle story and didn’t want to leave the curators of the future with as little about Hamlet. And so a trip to Hamlet, along with extensive negotiations with state and federal officials, secured a factory sign, one of the infamous locked doors, and other artifacts.”

— From “What Do We Keep?” by curators Steven Lubar and Peter Liebhold in American Heritage, spring 1999