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Worker Safety Deadline Set for North Carolina : Public health: The chicken processing plant fire that killed 25 people called attention to a lack of state inspection.


WASHINGTON — Labor Secretary Lynn Martin, responding to an explosion and fire that killed 25 workers in a chicken processing plant, on Wednesday ordered North Carolina to improve its worker safety program within 90 days or risk a federal takeover.

Martin said that Labor Department officials who reviewed North Carolina's program after the fire on Sept. 3, 1991, found a number of deficiencies, such as too few inspections and inadequate training of many inspectors.

North Carolina is one of 23 states, among them California, given sole responsibility for enforcing federal safety and health laws for the workplace. Each state's program, however, must pass an annual evaluation conducted by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a branch of the Labor Department.

Martin said that a special review of the other 22 states' programs will be reported to her by the end of the month. In 27 states, the federal government alone administers workplace standards.

If North Carolina's system is taken over by the federal agency, it would be the first OSHA action of that type.

After the disastrous fire and explosion at the Imperial Food Products plant near Hamlet, N.C., an official of the state's Labor Department said that inspectors had never visited the 11-year-old facility because no safety complaints had been received. Locked exits contributed to the high death toll in that incident, witnesses said.

Shortly after the fire, the AFL-CIO petitioned the Labor Department shortly after the fire to take over North Carolina's job safety program.

Gerard Scannell, the federal OSHA director, complained Wednesday that State Labor Commissioner John C. Brooks "will not give us documents" on his program, adding that "the cooperation has been very disappointing." Scannell said that he sought in vain to contact Brooks on Wednesday.

Martin told a news briefing that "permitting states to operate their own programs is a sound concept . . . but we must not and will not permit a state to operate a program that is below standard."

She said that the North Carolina warning "should send a clear message to states--and to employers as well--that we take job safety very seriously and we will insist that all who share that responsibility do likewise."

Offering "full cooperation" in helping North Carolina overcome flaws in its program within the next 90 days, Martin said: "We don't see any issue that can't be solved through mutual cooperation and determination."

She said that the North Carolina plan is "structurally sound" despite some problems. A major problem, she said, is that the state "has a high vacancy rate (among inspectors) and many performance deficiencies can be attributed to a lack of on-board staff."

Brooks charged later, in a statement from his office in Raleigh, that OSHA's 140-page evaluation of the program contained "several blatant errors." He said the federal agency had ignored "the many strengths of our program" and the fact that North Carolina has "one of the best workplace illness and injury rates in the nation."

He added that "an intensive training program for new inspectors" was begun two days ago.

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