Gov. Andy Beshear (D-Kentucky) announced that state investigators would be looking into claims that employees at a candle factory were threatened with termination if they left in order to take shelter in their homes amid an extreme weather alert.
The factory collapsed last Friday due to a tornado, killing eight workers.
Beshear said that an inquiry by the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Program shouldn’t suggest to residents that “there was any wrongdoing” on the part of the company, Mayfield Consumer Products.
“But what it should give people confidence in is that we’ll get to the bottom of what happened,” Beshear said.
The review, Beshear added, “will take months” to complete.
“Everyone is expected to live up to certain standards of both the law, of safety and of being decent human beings. I hope everybody lived up to those standards,” the Kentucky governor said.
Spokespeople for Mayfield Consumer Products have denied claims that workers were threatened with repercussions, including termination of employment, if they left their jobs early on Friday. But according to a report from NBC News, five workers said that the company made threats to at least 15 employees who wanted to leave hours before the storm arrived.
Requests from workers to leave began around 5:30 p.m., after an initial tornado siren sounded off, according to NBC News. When it became clear that the siren went off too early but that severe storms were still headed their way, workers pleaded with management to be allowed to shelter at home there rather than stay at work.
McKayla Emery, a worker who was injured in the building’s collapse, said that she overheard conversations where ultimatums were given to workers at the Mayfield Consumer Products factory.
“If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired. I heard that with my own ears,” Emery said.
Another worker, Elijah Johnson, said he was threatened with termination.
“I asked to leave and they told me I’d be fired. Even with the weather like this, you’re still going to fire me?” Johnson said he asked a supervisor, who reportedly told him “yes.”
Company spokesperson Bob Ferguson has characterized claims by workers as “total nonsense.” Notably, however, Ferguson also callously downplayed the significance of the tragedy in a statement to local journalists this week, describing in a positive light the factory deaths as a “miracle situation” because “only” eight lives were lost.