Commentary: Supervising job safety in North Carolina
4 Democrats seek Labor post held by BerryRALEIGH ó Looking around on the Internet, you can still find the photos today: boot prints indented on a padlocked, metal door; nine sets of fingerprints clawed into a metal cooler wall in futility.
The Hamlet chicken plant fire in 1991 still stands as a landmark governmental failure in worker protection.
Twenty-five people died and another 54 were injured. During the plant’s 11 years of operation, state worker safety inspectors had never been in the building.
It’s hard not think back on the Hamlet tragedy while reading a recent Charlotte Observer series which suggested that poultry processing giant House of Raeford hid worker injuries and threatened to fire complaining workers.
That’s not to imply that problems at House of Raeford approach the scope of those at the Imperial Foods plant in Hamlet. House of Raeford plants have been regularly inspected and cited for violations when found.
Still, suggestions that its work safety record isn’t as good as it claims ó and that the North Carolina Department of Labor has allowed the situation to occur ó bring to mind the political repercussions in the aftermath of the Hamlet fire.
Then-Labor Commissioner John Brooks ultimately lost his job a year later, losing a Democratic primary to Harry Payne.
This fall, current Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry, a Republican, will certainly have to answer criticism associated with the series, even if it is far less withering than that faced by Brooks.
Four Democrats are seeking their party’s nomination to try to unseat Berry.
The field includes Brooks, 71, who is attempting to regain the post 17 years later. The others are Mary Fant Donnan, 45, who now works for the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem and served as director of research and policy during Payne’s tenure at the Department of Labor; Robin Anderson, 49, a Raleigh employment lawyer; and Ty Richardson, 58, a machine operator for Illinois Tool Works in Wake County.
All four are vowing to toughen the state’s approach to enforcing work safety rules.
Brooks, who now works as a lawyer for the State Industrial Commission, says that his Labor Department simply didn’t have the resources that it needed back in the 1980s. His experience, though, makes him better qualified than his opponents to refocus the Department of Labor, he says.
Donnan says the state can encourage business expansion while doing a better job protecting workers. But Berry’s agency has sided too often with business, she says.
Anderson may be talking tougher than any of the Democrats. She says the handcuffs need to be removed from inspectors and that Berry’s department has been giving companies slaps on the wrist.
Richardson believes his work experience gives him a better understanding of issues facing workers. He says the state needs to do a better job making workers aware of their rights.
Whoever emerges from the primary will face a seasoned, well-financed incumbent in Berry. But they will have some material to work with when it comes to challenging her tenure.
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Scott Mooneyham is a columnist for Capitol Press Association.