North Carolina's lack of workplace inspections is a decades-old issue
The Dilworth construction site where three men fell to their deaths on Jan. 2 had never been inspected by the North Carolina Department of Labor.
That isn’t uncommon. North Carolina has about one compliance officer per county to conduct safety inspections. Many work sites are never inspected — unless there’s a tragedy.
Carol Brooke, senior attorney at the North Carolina Justice Center, says the state has grappled with this problem since at least the early '90s, when 25 poultry workers died in a fire, while locked inside the Imperial Food Products plant in Hamlet, North Carolina.
Much like the Dilworth site, the Hanover East Morehead apartments, the poultry plant had never been inspected — not until after the catastrophe.
“We've been behind on the number of inspectors since the Hamlet fire in 1991,” Brooke said. “We are in a sad state. And really, we don't have nearly the number of inspectors that we need to make sure that our workplaces are safe.”
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After the Hamlet fire, a few things occurred. The state passed legislation to protect workers against retaliation when reporting unsafe conditions and increased the number of safety inspectors from 60 to 114.
Since that time, North Carolina has added about four million residents, but the number of active compliance officers hasn’t kept pace. Currently, NCDOL says there are 105 officers working statewide. Thirty-three additional compliance jobs are sitting vacant.
“There also aren't a lot of them that speak Spanish,” Brooke said. “Given that our state often employs Spanish speakers in highly dangerous industries, that's a real problem.”
Currently, 11 compliance officers in North Carolina speak Spanish, NCDOL said. Three of them work in the Charlotte office, which covers a 15-county area.
More deaths, fewer investigations
A North Carolina Justice Center report, published in 2019, found that it would take about 108 years for state inspectors to reach every job site. Author Allan Freyer, now with Paragon Strategies, said this means many health and safety violations aren’t discovered until it’s too late.
“This is frankly the job of the North Carolina General Assembly,” Freyer said. “They need to spend more money to hire more inspectors and conduct more frequent inspections. None of this works without inspections.”
Currently, North Carolina businesses designated “high-hazard” establishments, like construction sites, are selected at random for inspection, NCDOL said. The unselected businesses will only receive a visit from a compliance officer in the case of a complaint, accident or referral.
Fines are one way to encourage businesses to self-regulate and avoid infractions. But Freyer said this is an area where North Carolina falls short as well.
“The penalty system was designed to deter employers from putting the workers' health and safety at risk,” Freyer said. “Yet the Department of Labor routinely handed out exceptionally low penalties, even in the case of fatalities.”
In 2017, for example, Freyer found in cases of workplace fatalities, North Carolina issued an average fine of about $4,100 — 75% lower than the national average.
Those fines are paid to the state and not workers' families. Whether families receive a payout depends on worker’s compensation insurance, which can take a long time to process. Businesses with more than three employees are required to have this coverage, Brooke said.
But employers may try to skirt responsibility by misclassifying employees.
“There are lots of reasons why employers might misclassify employees as independent contractors. It's certainly cheaper for them. There's less liability for things like safety and health,” she said. “But once something happens, like an accident … and the facts are looked into a little bit more, then the employer may not be able to escape liability.”
The distinction between employee and independent contractor is important in cases of workplace fatalities. NCDOL doesn’t investigate independent-contractor deaths and doesn't include them in fatality statistics. This was a problem flagged by Freyer in his research.
“There were hundreds of fatalities that were not being investigated. And this was at the same time when we began to see a really sharp increase in the number of deaths,” Freyer said. “So fewer investigations, but more fatalities. Something was going on.”
In 2018, for example, Freyer found there were 178 workplace fatalities in the state. Of those, NCDOL investigated 49.
In the Jan. 2 case on East Morehead Street, it is still unknown how the three deceased construction workers will be classified and where the liability will fall. An investigation could take six months to complete.
Included in NCDOL’s investigation are Old North State Masonry, Hanover R.S. East Construction and Friends Masonry Construction, where the deceased were employed. Another company involved with the project, Lithko Contracting, is not part of the state’s investigation.
Ashley Hawkins of the Charlotte-Metrolina Labor Council said she has been in contact with some of the families affected by the deaths. She hopes, at the very least, that there will be a memorial established for the three men — José Canaca Bonilla, 26; Gilberto Mónico Fernández, 54; and Jesús Arévalo Olivares, 42.
“We wouldn't have the Charlotte we have without the blood, sweat and tears of construction workers,” Hawkins said. “I really think that some kind of remembrance has to be put in place for these men because people are going to live in that building. They're never going to know that so much sacrifice went into building a place for people to live.”
None of the companies involved in the East Morehead Street fatalities has responded to our requests for comment.