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In harsh economy, labor officials preach worker safety

North Carolina Department of Labor officials worry that the downturn in the economy could tempt companies to compromise workplace safety.

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RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina Department of Labor officials worry that the downturn in the economy could tempt companies to compromise workplace safety.

"A lot of times, when there is a general downtick in the economy, safety is one of the things that companies don't seem to put a lot of effort and money into," said Allen McNeely, deputy commissioner and director of the department's Division of Occupational Safety and Health.

McNeely said Monday that there have been no obvious signs of companies cutting back on safety, but that the labor department is strongly encouraging companies to keep safety as a priority.

He hopes that an explosion two weeks ago at the ConAgra Foods plant in Garner as well as an ammonia leak over the weekend at Mountaire Farms in Robeson County are reminders that safety must be priority.

Dozens of people were injured and three were killed in the June 9 explosion at ConAgra, which produces Slim Jim beef jerky products. Investigators have said a natural gas leak likely caused the explosion.

At Mountaire, a poultry plant in Lumber Bridge, one person died and five others were taken to a local hospital following an ammonia leak Saturday morning. As many as 40 workers evacuated the building as the rupture released anhydrous ammonia gas, which causes burning and swelling of the air passages in the nose, throat and lungs.

The state labor department is likely months away from figuring out exactly what happened at both facilities.

Although it is still unclear if a subcontractor's negligence contributed to either of the plant disasters, safety consultant Harry Favre said cutting safety corners is never worth the price.

"If you've ever worked in a facility where a co-worker or somebody you knew has been injured, it's something that's devastating for everyone involved," Favre said. "Those companies that don't have an ongoing level of safety don't have safety."

One incident, officials said, can cause costly and sometimes irreparable damage to a company's processes.

Favre's company, Environmental Resource Center in Cary, works to help companies create a safe environment.

One of the best ways that a company can protect its employees is by thoroughly checking out all subcontractors who do work at the site.

"You want to make sure you select a contractor who has a good safety record," he said. "And I advise people to ask about that record before you hire a contractor."

The state labor department said there are about 245,000 companies statewide. It inspects about 5,000 workplaces each year. About 60 percent of these inspections are random inspections. The Occupational Safety and Health Division identifies companies in the most dangerous sectors for these random inspections.

The remaining 40 percent of the inspections, about 2,000 per year, are triggered by fatalities, accidents, referrals and complaints. The complaint inspections make up half of the remaining inspections, or about 20 percent of the total number of inspections each year.


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