A candle factory where eight people were killed in a catastrophic tornado will be investigated by the state of Kentucky – after employees said they were threatened with losing their jobs if they left the building.
The investigation was announced as President Joe Biden headed to the state to survey the damage and offer federal support to the victims of a series of a devastating tornadoes that left 88 people dead in the region – with 12 children among the 74 who died in Kentucky.
Another 105 are unaccounted for.
Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear said the announcement of the inquiry should not “suggest there was any wrongdoing”.
He continued: “But what it should give people confidence in is that we’ll get to the bottom of what happened.
“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.”
A timeframe for the review, which will be carried out by the state’s Occupational Safety and Health Program, is not immediately clear.
Five workers at the Mayfield Consumer Products factory, which was levelled on Friday during the surge of tornadoes, said in interviews that managers told employees they would probably lose their jobs if they went home.
Haley Condor, who worked at the factory, said around 15 people asked to go home during the night shift shortly after the first emergency alarm sounded outside the facility.
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Elijah Johnson, another employee, said managers took a roll call to determine who had left work.
Mr Johnson continued: “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?”
Mr Johnson said a manager replied with: “Yes.”
McKayla Emery, 21, said workers first asked to leave shortly after tornado sirens sounded outside the factory around 5.30pm.
In an interview from her hospital bed, she recalled overhearing managers tell four workers standing near her: “If you leave, you’re more than likely to be fired
“I heard that with my own ears.”
A company spokesman, Bob Ferguson, a spokesman for the company, said on Tuesday that the state inquiry was “entirely appropriate.”
“In such a catastrophic situation our regulators need to review these things.”
Mr Ferguson said an official of the state agency arrived at the site on Tuesday and was escorted around the property.
He denied Monday that any workers were threatened and called the allegations “completely untrue”.
“We’ve had a policy in place since COVID began,” he said. “Employees can leave any time they want to leave, and they can come back the next day.”
Mr Ferguson also denied that managers told employees that leaving their shifts meant risking their jobs.
He added that managers and team leaders underwent a series of emergency drills that followed guidelines of the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration.