5 Mistakes at Work That Turned into Total Catastrophes

Get ready to hear about some fire and explosions
5 Mistakes at Work That Turned into Total Catastrophes

Every workplace has three rules. One: Thou shalt not kill. Two: No explosions, except when specifically required by the job. Three: Keep damages under nine figures.

Sadly, these rules are broken constantly, and so are people’s spines. It’d be nice if you could go to work without dying, but as the old saying goes, “You can’t make an omelet without occasionally the whole building burning down.” 

The Case of the Explosive Chicken Tenders

Chicken tenders are not, as some people think, just a phrase like “chicken nugget,” for mashed-up bits of chicken stuck together again and fried. The tender, or the tenderloin, is a specific cut of the bird, a piece of meat under the breast. You’re well acquainted with that fact if you were one of the workers putting chicken tenders on the conveyor belt at the Imperial Food Products plant in North Carolina in 1991. However, if you were one of those workers, you also likely burned to death, so this job came with pros and cons.

chicken cuts


All worth it for the chicken knowledge, if you ask us.

The hydraulic line on that belt had been giving trouble, and the factory had asked management for a replacement, but management told them to hack their way through a spare line and make do. This spare line exploded under the pressure, and the hydraulic fluid vapor ignited when it flowed over the chicken fryer. The chicken fryer was full of oil, which tends to be flammable. The entire room was coated with chicken grease, which is also flammable. A gas line also happened to be leaking, and methane is also extremely flammable. 

Workers rushed for the nearest exit and found that the doors were locked from the outside. Owner Emmett Roe had locked exits to keep workers in, out of suspicion that they were stealing chicken. Another exit was totally blocked by a delivery vehicle. A dozen workers decided the safest move for them was to run to the freezer room and seal themselves in. All of them in there died. 

Hamlet chicken factory

Jack Yates

Some say the world will end in fire, some say in ice.

The fire killed 24 workers, plus one guy who was just there to drop off a vending machine. All blame fell on Roe, who in addition to locking everyone in had avoiding installing fire alarms or sprinklers. He’d wisely escaped inspections by never registering the place as a food plant. 

Roe pleaded guilty to manslaughter in exchange for a 20-year prison sentence. They paroled him after a few years, presumably for good behavior that included revolutionizing efficiency in the prison kitchen. 

Nuclear Kitty Litter

Workers at Los Alamos National Laboratory mixed a bunch of kitty litter into nuclear waste in 2014. Hearing that, you’ll probably think, “Yeah, I see how that was an insane idea. Clearly, disaster ensued.” Surprisingly, adding kitty litter to nuclear waste wasn’t the problem. Adding kitty litter to nuclear waste is standard. 

Atomic Kitten in 2005

Martin.o/Wiki Commons

It was pioneered by British girl group Atomic Kitten. 

Nuclear plants take lots of steps to avoid waste getting out and causing problems, and a huge chunk of risk vanishes when you turn liquid waste to solid waste. For example, you might mix nuclear waste with molten glass, a process called vitrification. The resulting product will never leak because there’s nothing to leak — it’s solid. Again, another method involves mixing the waste with cat litter. This resulting product isn’t quite as solid as vitrified waste, but it’s less volatile that the sludge you had before. 

These 2014 workers, however, made a mistake. They used the wrong kitty litter. They made the error of adding organic kitty litter. Some pet owners opt for organic litter because it’s biodegradable, but when we’re storing nuclear waste, we want all material to be the exact opposite of degradable. We want all containers and fillers to last as long as the waste and to stay totally inert. This organic litter broke down and slowly heated up.

Waste Isolation Pilot Plant

Department of Energy

Fortunately, this all happened in an isolated underground vault. 

The nuclear cat litter sat in a 55-gallon drum at a New Mexico site called the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant. Once the litter heated enough, it burst out of the barrel. The resulting leak irradiated 21 workers, and the cleanup took three years and cost $2 billion. With that kind of money, they could have invested in some much surer method of waste treatment. For instance, heavy duty cat litter, the kind Arm & Hammer sells. 

The Flaming Rat

Let’s return again to the topic of how dangerous it is to work professionally with vending machines. The United Novelty Company used to make slot machines and vending machines out of a factory in Mississippi. In 1949, a worker there sat down to clean a machine, using gasoline. As with the kitty-litter story, this detail might immediately raise flags in your mind, but the gasoline alone didn’t spell his doom. People rub machines with oil all the time. Gasoline is a rather volatile fraction of oil, but people used to even wash their clothes in gasoline in those days and had to be specifically warned that this presented a fire hazard. 

California Fire Marshal

Silly Mildred, always setting herself on fire.

This worker was named William Daniels, and he was 19 years old. Unbeknownst to him, a rat was hanging around inside the vending machine — not nibbling on food, as far as we know, but just chilling in the inner workings since the machine wasn’t sealed up. This rat’s fur soaked in some of the gasoline, or maybe just some of the fumes. It dashed out of the machine elsewhere into the room. 

Heating that room was a lamp with an open flame. The rat reached the lamp and caught fire. Then it ran back toward the vending machine, where the gasoline fumes hovered around Daniels, since this was a tiny room measuring just 8 by 10 feet. The gasoline exploded, and that was the end of William Daniels. 

William Daniels Boy Meets World

Walt Disney

No relation to actor William Daniels, currently still alive at age 96. 

This was such an absurd set of events that some people hearing it think it’s just some fable about workplace safety. This site, for example, says “the factual premise is pure nonsense,” but it happened, and the resulting legal decision remains written up in full in old law books. Daniels’ family sued the company, who had actually warned employees off washing with gasoline, but they hadn’t warned Daniels directly. The case went up to the state supreme court, who decided in favor of the family. 

As for the true key figure in this case, the rat, no one mourned it, but also, no one held it responsible. 

Trapped in the Oven

Plastic kayaks are made in factories, in a dedicated oven. In 2010, at one such factory in England, Alan Catterall stepped into the oven, to clean up some of the melted plastic in there. Another worker passed by and switched the oven on. This second worker just happened to be engaged to Catterall’s daughter. 

This sounds like a clear case of murder, as any man with a future father-in-law is battling him in some fierce conflict. In reality, it was not murder, but the oven was indeed a deathtrap. Thanks to its design, the door automatically locked whenever the power turned on. It was designed this way to save energy. 


Mark Bosky/Unsplash

Killing humans is a green solution.

Alan Catterall was not unarmed in this struggle. He had a crowbar, which he’d presumably brought with him to scrape the oven clean. He attacked the door from the inside — but to no avail. Also, no one was close enough to hear him struggle. The oven’s temperature rose to 280 degrees Celsius. He died of shock well before more grisly injuries could take hold.

Surprisingly, we have here another case in which the law held someone powerful responsible, and we’re not talking about the son-in-law. We’re talking about the oven manufacturer. A jury found the company’s director guilty of manslaughter, and he went to prison. As for the son-in-law, reports don’t mention whether he really did go on to the marry the daughter of the man he unintentionally killed, probably because it’s not really any of our business. 

A Small Gunpowder Incident in Beijing

On May 30, 1626, something happened in Beijing. We don’t know precisely what, because it was 1626 and it was Beijing. But we know it resulted in a huge explosion, complete with a mushroom cloud. State media at the time (yes, the Chinese government had an official newspaper in the 17th century) described it as a “heavenly calamity,” a mysterious strike from above. Right in the center of the explosion stood the Wanggongchang Armory, which was maybe the country’s biggest producer of gunpowder, so a fair guess says someone screwed up at the gunpowder factory. 

Gunpowder for muzzleloading firearms in granulation size

Lord Mountbatten/Wiki Commons

That place was a Chekhov's gun just waiting to go off.

The blast flattened a square mile of the city. The ground where the factory had stood sank 20 feet. People heard the rumblings a hundred miles away. 

This happened at si shi, and it threw a giant shishi. For those unfamiliar with Ming terminology, si shi is a time of the day, between 9 a.m. and 11 a.m., while a shishi is a stone guardian lion. The explosion lifted one of these shishis weighing three tons and flung it over the city wall. 

Leonard G./Wiki Commons


Over at the palace, the shaking killed the Emperor’s baby son and heir. In time, this death would lead to the fall of the Ming Empire. That was just one death of many, though, because the full toll from the Wanggongchang explosion is estimated to be around 20,000

This keeps happening, by the way. No, we don’t mean gunpowder explosions. We mean we keep compiling lists of disasters, talking about one person dying here and a dozen dying there, and then we stumble on some additional incident in China that killed tens of thousands. C’mon, China. Get your act together. 

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