WASHINGTON, D.C. – The following is a statement from Jackie Nowell, Director of Occupational Safety and Health at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union:
A year ago today – June 9, 2009 – it was a warm afternoon in Garner, North Carolina when a powerful explosion leveled the ConAgra Foods plant. A tragic error in judgment while installing a new water heater led an outside contractor to repeatedly release natural gas from a pipe into an enclosed room near the center of the building and an unknown spark set it ablaze.
The resulting explosion and toxic ammonia release killed four people and injured 70 others. It was a preventable tragedy that destroyed lives, livelihoods and a community of friends and neighbors. The United Food and Commercial Workers represented the more than 300 ConAgra workers affected by the blast and saw first-hand the devastation caused by this explosion.
Conflagrations like this one killed and injured workers from Missouri to Michigan, and yet no regulations existed to prevent contractors from purging gas lines into closed spaces. Working with authorities and experts from across the country we set about to change this. Our fight became marked by even greater urgency after five workers were killed in yet another gas purging explosion in Connecticut that February.
Along with the U.S. Chemical Safety Board, who investigated this explosion, we urged the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) – who provides safety codes for building contractors across the country – to adopt regulations that would prevent contractors from purging explosive gasses into enclosed spaces. But after heavy lobbying from the natural gas and propane industries, the NFPA wilted like old lettuce and failed to stand for the safety of America’s workers.
So here we are, one year later. The plant in Garner rather is scheduled to close, bringing a second round of devastation to the community. We know we can’t bring back these workers, these friends, these family members back to their community and their loved ones. The broken system at the NFPA has failed to learn from these tragedies and has bowed to industry pressure to let these deadly indoor gas purges continue unregulated.
This is frankly unacceptable. As Debra Petteway, a Food and Commercial Workers member who worked in the ConAgra plant and lost her son to the explosion said, “Louis Watson was my son, he was my only son, and now he’s gone. They didn’t have to die, and if someone doesn’t fix this, it’s going to happen again.”
Ms. Petteway is right. The NFPA, who is supposed to protect workers like her son, has shirked their duty.
So one year later, the “experts” charged with protecting America’s workers have failed to learn from this tragedy or from the legions before or after. How much longer will we wait with no regulatory or legislative action for the safety of American workers? The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and our legislators must not wait for these quasi-governmental regulatory bodies to demonstrate their craven kowtowing to industry demands any longer. We need comprehensive legislative or OSHA regulation so that the lessons of those who gave their lives in these explosions are not forgotten and all those that come later are protected from a similar fate.