When deadly tornadoes swept across five states on Friday night, workers at the doomed Mayfield Consumer Products candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky, continued to work around-the-clock to meet Christmastime demands.
When warning sirens near the facility blared, some 15 workers begged managers to let them seek shelter in their own homes, only to be told that they should get back to work. According to at least four workers who spoke to NBC News, there were even threatened that they would be terminated if they left their shift early.
Some workers, afraid for their lives, decided to leave regardless of the potential firing.
Now, with at least eight people dead following the catastrophic collapse of the factory, it appears that the company’s policies may have directly led to the deadly results of the destructive tornado system.
According to 21-year-old worker McKayla Emery, who is now hospitalized, workers began to beg supervisors to end the shift once tornado sirens sounded at around 5:30 p.m. Others huddled in bathrooms and hallways in fear of the extreme conditions surrounding the factory. Once the tornado seemed to taper down, they pleaded to go home.
“People had questioned if they could leave or go home,” said Emery, who decided it would be better at the time to continue her shift.
Managers, in the meantime, stoked fears of being sacked in conversations with workers.
“If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired,” Emery said managers told a group of workers who had decided to go home. “I heard that with my own ears.”
Once the factory later collapsed, Emery was trapped for six hours and suffered a number of severe chemical burns from candle wax across her body. She also sustained kidney damage, her urine has turned black, and she can’t move her legs.
Another group of 15 workers asked to go home once the first emergency alarm sounded, according to 29-year-old employee Haley Conder.
Supervisors initially implied to workers that they must stay at the factory due to safety precautions, she said. Once the tornado appeared to die down, staff were told to get back to work, Conder said.
“‘You can’t leave, you can’t leave, you have to stay here,’” Conder said she was told by shift leaders. “The situation was bad. Everyone was uncomfortable.”
Another employee, Latavia Halliburton, also witnessed workers being threatened with termination if they left. “Some people asked if they could leave,” but managers said them leaving would result in their firing, she said.
Mark Saxton, 37, was a forklift operator who also said that he was forced to remain on the clock as tornadoes raged in the area.
“That’s the thing. We should have been able to leave,” Saxton said. “The first warning came and they just had us go in the hallway. After the warning, they had us go back to work. They never offered us to go home.”
The company has denied the allegations and calls them “absolutely untrue,” with one company spokesman claiming that workers can leave and come back as they please due to pandemic-related policies.
The spokesman also claims that managers are drilled in emergency scenarios and strictly follow FEMA and OSHA guidelines, which they remained faithful to even during Friday’s doomed shift.
However, employees now feel like they were exploited and left to die thanks to the company’s need to keep the factory floor buzzing along despite that the factory would be reduced to rubble, as was the case after the storm toppled the facility.
“It hurts cause I feel like we were neglected,” said Saxton.
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