After 8 die in Kentucky candle factory, workers question company’s tornado preparation

after 8 people die

MAYFIELD, Ky. —

The first tornado warning was already over when Elijah Johnson walked onto the candle factory floor to begin his 6 p.m. shift.

A team leader instructed the 20-year-old candle inspector to get into position on the production line. Johnson started checking the candles on the conveyor belt when he heard workers asking the night supervisor if they could go before the worst of the storms.

Johnson asked too, he said, but the supervisor said no.

“He asked, “Even with this terrible weather, you still won’t let me go?”

Days after the massive storm system tore through Kentucky and five other states — killing 88 people, including eight at the candle factory — some workers have raised questions about the company’s tornado preparation: Why didn’t the factory stop production and close for the night? Supervisors didn’t send messages to workers informing them that they wouldn’t be punished if they fled because of the storms. Or gave those who followed safety instructions better notice.

The candle factory’s owner has denied any wrongdoing in relation to the recent storms.

Johnson said his supervisor told him he had clocked out early too many times on other days. Johnson stated that Johnson was warned by his supervisor not to leave the night of the storms.

“He said that the night supervisor had told him the rule. “If you leave, you’re going to be terminated.”

Several hours later, the tornado sirens blared again. Johnson fell to the ground, his hands covering his head, and his knees over his stomach. Team leaders led him to a corridor near the bathrooms to shelter.

Johnson was trapped beneath a concrete wall when he opened his eyes. He saw that the entire warehouse had been pulverized and his coworkers gasped for air.

He called his father. “I’m stuck! I’m stuck! I’m stuck!”

Eight of the 110 workers who stayed in the Mayfield factory Friday night did not make it out alive. Dozens were hospitalized.

Workers claimed that their supervisors and team leaders stopped them from leaving. According to a spokesman, the factory had changed its workplace policies to accommodate the labor shortages that occurred during the pandemic. Employees were allowed to clock out at their own pace and leave without being punished.

“Absolutely false,” Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for Mayfield Consumer Products, said regarding reports of company rules that allegedly prevented employees from leaving work. “Employees are always free to leave if they want to.”

The candle factory was not alone in staying open during the tornado. The town’s other major employers, including the Pilgrim’s Pride chicken plant and the Walmart Superstore, didn’t close.

Ferguson said Mayfield Consumer Products had followed government regulations set out by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Occupational Health and Safety Administration to establish emergency response plans, identify places for workers to shelter and account for who is on the work site.

The candle factory stated that it would welcome further guidance from government officials.

“If climate change or something is happening where the storms are of a greater threat or ferocity,” Ferguson said, “we would ask our safety administrators, our government to tell us: Should we alter the policies that are in place?”

Most of the people who perished in the weekend storms were not gathered in a large workplace, but in single-family houses, trailers and nursing homes. The eight victims of the candle factory explosion and six others who died at an Amazon distribution center, Edwardsville, Ill., have led some labor experts and economists calling for more research on the dangers of working in large warehouses in the Midwest and South. This is especially important as global warming increases the severity and frequency of storms.

“With global warming, there is a growing awareness of safety standards that need to be updated. With more attention to worker safety, Marcus Dillender, an economist at University of Illinois at Chicago’s School of Public Health, said, “We can’t rely on companies to do this.” “We can’t rely on companies to do this.”

While OSHA encourages employers to develop emergency action plans for natural disasters, it does not have specific rules limiting whether employers can require workers to go to work during a storm, Dillender said. OSHA’s safety and health laws contain a “general duty” clause that requires employers to ensure safe working conditions. Dillender disagrees.

OSHA has a broad policy that requires all employers to have an emergency plan. However, Dillender said the agency is not adequately resourced to ensure compliance and monitor companies regularly.

Companies that employ workers in massive factories and warehouses — in some cases thin, modern metal buildings that typically don’t have basements — should explore how to create infrastructure that can withstand powerful tornadoes, said Beth Gutelius, research director at the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois-Chicago. Gutelius stated that it is important to plan ahead and think strategically to ensure both the buildings and emergency preparedness plans are in place. The factory that supplies candles to Bath & Body Works was experiencing a Christmas rush as a result of staff shortages. Online, it was advertising for employees who would work 10- to 12-hour shifts in a “fast-paced environment.” The starting wage was $8 an hour.

“Mandatory overtime will be required frequently, either by extending your shift or working on Friday,” the company said in a job posting.

Isaiah Holt, 32, who worked in the wax and fragrance department, mixing chemicals to make the candles, said the company’s pay structure involved incentives that required him to work 50 hours a week and a minimum of two Saturdays a month to get his pay bumped from $12 to $15 an hour. Holt stated that workers could leave even if they were technically allowed to do so. However, he said that working less hours would result in losing more than a few hours of pay. For every hour worked during the week, he would lose a higher rate of pay.

” They kind of got us into a spot,” said he.

Many workers who stayed at the Mayfield warehouse on Friday night didn’t ask to go.

Autumn Kirks, a 34-year-old team leader, said she and her fiance, Lannis Ward, considered taking shelter at home when a small group of workers got ready to leave after the first tornado warning. Although they would prefer to be at home and enjoy the storm, they realized that they had to remain as leaders to ensure production lines were running.

” Our team depends on us,” Ward said to her.

Ward didn’t make it out alive from the factory.

On Tuesday, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear, Kentucky Governor, announced Tuesday that the Kentucky Division of Occupational Safety and Health Compliance would investigate the Mayfield factory death. He noted that these reviews are common and “shouldn’t suggest any wrongdoing.” President Biden visited Kentucky on Wednesday.

Some candle factory workers were unhappy with their supervisors’ criticisms.

“It breaks my heart to hear these bad comments on Facebook about making employees stay at work,” day shift supervisor Linetta Burney posted on Facebook on Sunday night. “Everybody knows damn well they would not MAKE anybody stay.”

As Holt recovered this week from broken ribs and a punctured lung in a hospital bed in Nashville, he said he had little sympathy for company management. Bobby Holt, his older brother who had just begun working at the factory, was in a coma due to kidney damage that stopped blood flow in his legs.

“Negligence, negligence, negligence — and greed,” Holt said of the company’s response to the storms. “Everybody that’s in charge needs to be locked up, without any type of compassion — not just because they’re the worst people in the world, but so other people don’t do this.”

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