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tornado - workplace accidental death solicitors - corporate manslaughter

Significant casualties in American factory after workers given 20 minute Tornado warning – is this corporate manslaughter?

tornado - workplace accidental death solicitors - corporate manslaughter

A series of deadly tornados, including one category EF5, hit multiple US states last Friday evening (10th December 2021). EF5’s can reach speeds higher than 200mph. The “Quad-State Tornado” wreaked havoc across 200 miles of land, destroying homes, businesses, and claiming lives.

In Mayfield, Kentucky, the strongest of these tornados hit Mayfield Consumer Products (MCP), a candle factory running around the clock to meet Christmas demand. The factory is the 3rd largest employer in the area, with 245 people staff and last year’s earning standing at $28.97million. 110 workers were trapped in the manufacturing plant at the time. As of Monday, 90 of the workers have been accounted for, at least 8 employees are confirmed dead. State Gov. Andy Beshear referred to the freak weather event as “the most severe tornado event in Kentucky history.”  

The question is, how did such a profitable company with a sizeable workforce in a known tornado area lack the preparedness required to keep its staff safe? Is this an “act of God” where none can assume blame, or outright negligence leading to corporate manslaughter?

The lead-up to the tornado; a history of safety violations and the advanced warnings

OSHA, or the Occupational Safety & Health Administration arm of the United States Department of Labor, filled multiple serious safety violations against MCP LLC in 2019, after a planned inspection. The breaches included a lack of PPE for electrical and respiratory protection, and severely lacking “maintenance, safeguards, and operational features for exit routes.

The candle factory operators were aware of these safety failings, and instead of correcting them, filled to contest the citation. Incriminating facts such as these go far in pointing the debate to corporate manslaughter. As a non-unionised workplace, it is fairly evident that employees wouldn’t have known about these issues. Surely, however, knowing that a significant tornado was ravaging the area, a lack of well-kept exit points wouldn’t have mattered if they had plenty of time to evacuate the building? Even people hundreds of miles away were aware of the impending disaster well in advance.

Despite hours of alerts from local news stations, social media and presumably concerned relatives, the workers were only given 20 minutes of warning. They were told to take shelter in the building. It is unclear if there was a designated safe area within, like many commercial buildings in the area do, but experts have claimed it would have made little difference against the strength of this tornado.

Many reports have stressed that management outrightly refused to allow workers to leave, as Christmas is a seriously profitable time for the scented candle market. Others have suggested that tornados are “business as usual” in this corner of the USA, and the company was right to assume things would be safe. However, a more nuanced take, from a Tornado Alley local, hints that there is negligence through lack of hazard observation, which could be considered evidence of corporate manslaughter. (Please mind the swearing.)

There have also been multiple reports that employees were denied access to personal devices, which would have allowed them to monitor the incoming danger and react accordingly, as management clearly didn’t effectively.

The company CEO, Troy Propes, has appeared on national news to plead for donations after the disaster. This came before confirming plans were underway to rebuild, despite emergency services working to pull out bodies – unseen in the background. Many on social media are calling him a “murderer” for refusing to let his staff leave.

A similar event at the same time in an Amazon facility

An Amazon driver has also died after taking shelter from another tornado ravaging Illinois. He was one of 6 confirmed dead in the Edwardsville plant. Despite contradictions for the company, workers have stressed that they too were not allowed personal devices and were given less than 20 minutes warning. Workers were told to “shelter in place” and were directed to bathrooms, because they lack windows and exterior walls.

“It sounded like a train came through the building. The ceiling tiles came flying down. It was very loud. They made us shelter in place til we left – it was at least two and a half hours in there.”

What will come of these events? Is there blame?

We’ve seen from continued exposure to events in the USA that there often isn’t any justice for the deceased. This is especially true against large corporations with substantial legal might and public opinion in certain politically leaning states. Admitting liability, even if not corporate manslaughter, only opens them up to workplace injury compensation, and results in share price drops. Therefore, they are more the likely to fight claims, especially where the topic of unforeseeable and extreme circumstances comes in.

Many online, despite believing that the company is negligent, feel that nothing will come of this, no prosecutions or justice for the families. IT needs to be proven that the company was aware, in advance, of the impending disaster, and still refused workers to leave and find shelter before negligence can be found. Then the question becomes whether it can be considered an accident caused by negligence, or corporate manslaughter.

We’ve been acutely aware of how businesses play fast-and-loose with the rules and restrictions during the pandemic in the UK. Calling non-essential staff into work, despite lockdowns, and breaking social distancing rules to continue to make profits. In this instance, it is clear that MCP found the profits generated from manufacturing candles to be worth the risk to human lives.

Does this mean anything for the UK workforce?

We are fortunate, here in the UK, that we don’t have to face-down tornados. However, Britain is known for its occasionally sudden extreme weather. As world climate change accelerates, the country is going to be experience serious weather more frequently, which we’ve already seen during this year. The prospect of severe cold, heatwaves, rain and, flash flooding events becomes greater to people, and businesses.

Whilst laws are in place for cold weather conditions at work and public places, like schools, they often aren’t enforced, or even known to employees. Without learning the lessons of freak weather events from elsewhere, the UK could well have its own share of disasters in the years to come. It is up to employers to maintain a duty of care to your health and safety, which includes monitoring for environmental hazards. It is clear that these two factories in the US failed to do this, and their staff paid the ultimate price.

Has your employer put you in harms way and caused you injury?

If your workplace has juggled with your health and safety and caused you to become hurt or unwell, you may have ground to claim for employer negligence compensation. Contact Workplace Injury Claims for a free assessment of your situation and get friendly legal guidance. If you have a claim, we’ll pass you onto our solicitors, who can help you on a no win, no fee* basis.

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