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The Forgotten Lessons of the Hamlet Fire

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The Forgotten Lessons of the Hamlet Fire

The Assembly,

5 min read
3 take-aways
Audio & text

What's inside?

A 1991 fire at a chicken processing plant killed 24 workers, but the reforms it triggered have faded away.

Editorial Rating



  • Controversial
  • Eye Opening
  • Eloquent


This concise, well-reported story offers a vivid picture of the negligence and failures that resulted in the deaths of 25 workers in a fire at a North Carolina chicken processing plant in 1991. Surviving workers and community members still struggle with the aftermath. Seasoned journalist John Drescher covered the fire at the time as a local reporter and revisited it recently for this story. He reports that any safety improvements made after the fire were inadequate or have since fallen short or faded away. Those responsible for risk management or workplace health and safety, as well as top executives, policymakers and journalists covering local government and business, should take heed.


A fire in a chicken processing plant killed 25 workers in Hamlet, NC in 1991. Locked exit doors hampered victims’ escape.

Hamlet, North Carolina’s chicken processing plant had been operating for more than a decade when a 1991 fire killed 25 factory workers. Locked exit doors trapped some people in the building.

Workplace safety inspectors had never visited the plant, but US Department of Agriculture (USDA) food-safety inspectors came often. Reporters filed Freedom of Information Act requests for copies of inspection paperwork, enabling The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News and Observer to report that USDA inspectors at the time approved locking the exit doors to control flies, even though locking them was illegal. Workers told reporters that the plant’s owner, Imperial Food Products, wanted the doors locked to keep workers from stealing chickens – not because of a problem with flies.

The USDA initially shrugged off responsibility, observing that reporting “workplace safety” concerns is not part of its mandate, but is “optional.” In response to pressure, the USDA signed...

About the Author

John Drescher is a contributing editor to The Assembly, former executive editor of The News & Observer in Raleigh, NC, and a former editor at The Washington Post.

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