HAMLET, N.C. — Nothing focused more scrutiny on the safety of North Carolina workers than the 1991 chicken plant fire that killed 25 people in Hamlet.
It was the worst industrial accident in state history. At a plant that had never been inspected by state OSHA officials, workers died struggling to get out of doors that had been locked to prevent the theft of chicken nuggets.
Threatened with a federal takeover of their workplace safety program, state Occupational Safety and Health Administration officials doubled the number of inspectors and promised to get tougher on employers who flouted the rules.
Twenty years later, however, there are signs that the progress has begun to slip.
N.C. OSHA inspections and citations have dropped sharply. Total citations sank to about 10,400 last fiscal year - the lowest number in 17 years. Inspections are at their lowest level since 2001.
And since the mid-1990s, the agency's staffing has failed to keep pace with the growth in the state's workforce.
Workplace safety advocate Tom O'Connor, who heads the National Council for Occupational Safety and Health, said North Carolina's OSHA program is stronger than it was before the fire.
"It was a big wake-up call," he said. "But I think a lot of the promises of really overhauling the program and making it a truly effective deterrent have just not come about."
N.C. Labor Commissioner Cherie Berry and other labor department leaders declined to be interviewed for this story. But in written answers to the Observer's questions, Berry said North Carolina is recognized for having one of the nation's top OSHA programs.
"When you look at the big picture in North Carolina, there is no disputing the state has made significant progress," she wrote. "...I can tell you workplaces are safer now."
Berry, a Republican who was first elected to her position in 2000, points to North Carolina's steadily declining workplace injury and illness rates as evidence that the state's approach is working. North Carolina's rates are at an all-time low and are below those in most other states.
But a 2008 Observer investigation showed that the injury numbers aren't always accurate. Regulators rely on companies to report all serious workplace injuries, but it's an honor system. In North Carolina and elsewhere, regulators rarely crack down on companies that fail to do so, the newspaper found.
Other safety trends have been mixed. After reaching a low in 2009, workplace deaths in North Carolina climbed more than 40 percent last year. There were 48 deaths in 2010 — up from 34 the previous year.
Safety advocates contend that workers are endangered by a pro-business approach at the N.C. labor department.
N.C. regulators rarely use their toughest enforcement tools. Violations deemed to be "willful" can lead to stiff financial penalties and can cost companies lucrative contracts. But in North Carolina, fewer than one of every 1,000 OSHA violations have been deemed willful over the past decade.
Last year financial penalties rose to $5.9 million - the highest in years. But N.C. regulators still typically impose smaller fines than most of their counterparts nationally.
In fiscal year 2010, the average penalty for serious violations in North Carolina was $884 — about 9 percent less than the national average, according to a recent AFL-CIO report.
Berry offered one reason fines are lower: Inspectors in North Carolina investigate more small businesses than those in many other states — and the rules provide a reduction in penalties for small employers.
As labor secretary, Berry is responsible for ensuring that companies follow workplace safety rules. A former co-owner of a company that makes spark plug wires, she has adopted a cooperative approach with employers. She says she sees no evidence that high fines make job sites safe.
O'Connor, the safety advocate, said that while North Carolina often works with companies to help them improve workplace conditions, it's "reluctant to use that big stick when necessary."
"Anytime you have a lot of workplaces and few inspectors ... and penalties are weak, you certainly have the potential for another tragedy like Hamlet," he said.
Read more of this story at CharlotteObserver.com