The Hamlet chicken processing plant fire was an industrial fire in Hamlet, North Carolina, at the imperial Foods processing plant on September 3, 1991 leading to death of 25 workers and injured 55 in the fire trapped behind the locked fire doors.
There were 90 employees in the facility at the time of the fire, which began when a 25-foot long deep fat fryer vat may have spontaneously ignited. This Cooker’s temperature was controlled by thermostat and was maintained at a constant 190 degrees centigrade, which was variable by design to 8 degrees centigrade either way. The fire spread rapidly, causing a panic so that some workers suffered trauma injuries during a rush to escape. Large quantities of smoke were produced by a combination of burning soybean oil and chicken and melting roof installation. The smoke was later found to be hydrocarbon-charged and had the potential to disable someone within a few breaths. Several gas lines embedded in the ceiling also caught fire and exploded.
The majority of those who escaped unharmed were workers in the front of the building who left through the unlocked main entrance, but most workers trapped by a curtain of smoke. Others tried to escape through the locked doors by kicking them down, but without success, most of the survivors from the rear of the building got out through a loading bay. The bay was initially blocked by a tractor-trailer, but three workers went into the rear of the truck and pounded on the walls until they were heard by rescuers who moved the vehicle. Others escaped when several workers managed to break open a few of the doors, though for many this came too late.
The company had a poor safety record, though with no previous fatal accidents. It was cited in the 1980s for safety violations at its plant in pennsylvania. The violations included poorly marked or blocked emergency exits. In 11 years of operation, the plant had never received a safety inspection. Investigators believe a safety inspection might have prevented the disaster.
Life safety codes must be enforced. Proper enforcement of existing regulations must occur in future.
Cooking areas must be separately partitioned from other employee work areas. Cooking operations in food processing plants carry a high risk of fire and so must be separated from the rest of the building and from as many workers as possible.
Building exits in wet-type operations should have double emergency lighting, one positioned above the door and one low to the floor.
High-pressure equipment maintenance and repairs must be limited to factory-trained personnel and specifications. Maintenance personnel working on high-pressure machinery, such as the maintenance employee who conducted the faulty modification to the hydraulic hose in the plant must be trained by personnel from the factory that supplied the equipment.
High-pressure equipment in probable incident areas should have built-in catastrophic shutdown valves. This would reduce the probability of accidents in high-risk areas by shutting down machinery should fault occur.
Negative air flow systems in these facilities could enhance safety by being modified to also accomplish smoke evacuation. Many similar plants have the equipment. which is designed to quickly purge the air of toxic fumes in the event of accidental release of ammonia.
Establish a worry free line of communications for industry employees. Workers inside the Hamlet plant were afraid to say anything about safety conditions to fear of being fired. To overcome such problems, states should establish systems of anonymous reporting of problems by workers.
Emergency exit drills must be incorporated into industry policies. This would allow quick evacuation of premises like the Hamlet chicken plant.
The number of OSHA safety inspectors must be increased. The team of inspectors was hugely overburdened at the time of the accident and the increase in the number of inspectors is required to solve the problem.
State and federal inspectors from various departments should be cross trained. Had the food inspector reported the problems he saw, the disaster may have been prevented despite the lack of other safety inspections. Such personnel should be trained to recognize major problems and to report them to the relevant authorities.