Fewer Willful Violation Citations in North Carolina Leads to High Rate of Workplace Injuries in Unsafe Work Environments

The 1991 chicken plant fire that killed 25 people in Hamlet, North Carolina is tragically known as one of the worst industrial accidents in state history. The Charlotte Observer reports that much examination was placed on worker safety at North Carolina jobsites following the deathly tragedy of all those workers killed in the fire.

The Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) inspectors had never conducted an inspection of the plant where workers died trying to get out from behind locked doors, which is an obvious workplace violation.
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Asheville workers’ compensation attorneys know that many work injuries go unreported because there is an honorary system in place in North Carolina in which companies need to self-report serious injuries occurring on the job. OSHA inspections are critical in keeping companies running above board and making sure employee safety is maintained at all times. Following the chicken plant incident, OSHA officials started cracking the whip on employers and doubling inspections in fear of a federal takeover of the North Carolina workplace safety program.

Twenty years later, workplace injuries in Charlotte, Winston-Salem, Statesville and elsewhere in the state are a genuine concern because inspections and citations of companies have dropped dramatically. In fact, inspections by North Carolina OSHA are at the lowest level since 2001 and total citations dropped to 10,400 during last fiscal year, which is the lowest amount since 1995. Also to be noted is that staffing at OSHA has not been equally matched with the growth of the workforce in North Carolina.

North Carolina Labor Officials argue that the system is a strong as ever and that workplace incidents fail in comparison to what they were 20 years ago. Moreover, illness and injury rates remain at the bottom end of the spectrum and lower than most other states throughout the country.

A 2008 Observer inquiry found that accountability of injuries and illnesses by workplaces weren’t always accurate which skewed the numbers somewhat. The newspaper found that employers who didn’t report serious injuries weren’t reprimanded and if an inspection wasn’t done of the facility then safety violations were more prevalent putting workers at risk. Workplace fatalities increased by 40 percent from 34 in 2009 to 48 reported deaths in 2010.

Willful violations cited by OSHA can be charged with a stiffer fine but inspectors in North Carolina over the last 10 years have handed out less than one of every 1,000 violations as willful which is a rate much less than most states. Seemingly, this is because the NC Labor Department takes on a pro-business approach and companies would face hefty fines if found to be in willful violation. In 2010, financial penalties were reportedly high nationwide totaling $5.9 million.

The average citation in North Carolina last fiscal year was roughly $884, or 9 percent lower than the nationwide average. Labor officials argue that many inspections are done of small companies compared to other states and these companies can’t afford stiff penalties, so rules are in place to protect small employers from facing large fines for violations found within their company.

Had an inspection been done of the Hamlet plant prior to the incident, they would have found as many as 80 safety violations. It is no time to become complacent with the number of inspections taking place throughout the state because workers must be protected from potential work hazards. So many lives could have been saved if the doors had been unlocked and employees were able to flee the building safely.

Workers’ compensation cases and disability claims are often complex and need knowledge which can be provided by an experienced team of injury lawyers. If you have been injured at work in North Carolina, call 1-800-887-1965 to speak with a workers’ compensation attorney at the Lee Law Offices, P.A. today.

Additional Resources:
20 years after Hamlet, NC’s worker safety push weakens, by Ames Alexander and Franco Ordonez, The Charlotte Observer.

Despite Big Business Contentions – Injured Workers Deserve Fair Compensation in North Carolina, North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Lawyers Blog, August 30, 2011.

Employee Layoffs Can Often Lead to Employers Skimping on Safety, Increase in Work Injuries at North Carolina Job Sites, > North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Lawyers Blog, August 6, 2011.

North Carolina Injured Workers: What to Do, Who to Tell, North Carolina Workers’ Compensation Lawyers Blog, July 6, 2011.

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