Owners of candle factory damaged in tornado plan expansion

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The company that operated a Kentucky candle factory flattened by a deadly winter tornado plans to ramp up production with a $33 million investment in a nearby plant, Gov. Andy Beshear announced Thursday.

Mayfield Consumer Products LLC, a maker of candles and other home fragrance products, plans to employ more than 500 full-time people over the next five years at its Hickory plant as it rebuilds production. The company’s factory in Mayfield was directly affected by the tornado that devastated the city last December.

Several workers died at the plant – among the 81 people who died in Kentucky as storms tore through parts of western Kentucky. Thousands of homeless people have taken shelter with relatives and friends, or in emergency centers, hotels and state parks.

.Beshear, a Democrat, touted the economic development news Thursday without mentioning the workplace quotes against the company. The announcement comes just weeks after state officials issued citations against the company for alleged violations of Kentucky’s occupational safety and health laws. The company faces $21,000 in potential fines for three alleged violations related to the tornado, according to state Labor Cabinet documents obtained by The Associated Press Thursday via an open records request.

Asked about the citations later Thursday, the governor’s office did not immediately comment.

The company is also defending itself against a lawsuit claiming it showed “flagrant indifference” by refusing to allow employees to return home early as the storm approached. Company officials did not immediately return calls Thursday for comment on the quotes.

Beshear said more job announcements are coming as the Mayfield area continues to dig in from massive tornado damage.

“This expansion will restore the company’s employment base in the region and add to overall reconstruction efforts,” the governor said at his weekly news conference.

The governor made repeated trips to western Kentucky to support recovery efforts. He was there recently when three families received keys to new homes in Mayfield – the first homes to be built entirely there since the tornado.

Mayfield Consumer Products had already begun construction on an expansion at its location in the Hickory Industrial Park. It is now planning another larger expansion that will consolidate its operations following the destruction of its Mayfield plant. Hickory is about 9.5 kilometers from Mayfield. The total planned investment is $33.3 million, the governor’s office said.

Company founder Mary Propes said the expansion shows the company’s “determination to rebuild here and play a pivotal role in helping restore the place we call home”.

“This community has a bright future, and we are committed to playing an important role in that progress,” she said in a press release issued by the governor’s office.

The company currently employs 160 people in western Kentucky.

Meanwhile, the state recently said the company committed three violations deemed “serious” in connection with the tornado, according to labor cabinet documents.

The citations claim that the company did not keep a “free and unobstructed” exit corridor, did not maintain an alarm system to notify employees of fire or other emergencies, and did not reviewed an emergency action plan with each employee. Each alleged violation carries a proposed fine of $7,000.

The company had 15 days, excluding weekends, to challenge the quotes. A spokeswoman for the Labor cabinet said it was not immediately clear whether the company had appealed.

A lawyer involved in the storm-related litigation lambasted the company for the citations.

“Those of us representing the former employees displaced in the tornado certainly hope that the new facilities will comply with state safety laws, given that this company has been hit with serious violations,” the attorney said. Amos Jones by phone Thursday.

The lawsuit was filed in state court days after the tornado but has since moved to federal court, based on a motion filed by the defendants, Jones said. The plaintiffs are trying to have the lawsuit returned to state court, he said.

“The defendants can’t run from what they did anyway,” Jones said.

The lawsuit accuses Mayfield Consumer Products of violating Kentucky workplace standards by keeping its staff on the job despite the danger of death and injury. The lawsuit says the workers were threatened with firing if they left in the hours before the tornado. The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages.

A company spokesperson said last December that employees were free to leave at any time, and he denied that they would have been punished if they had done so. A company executive then said the company was retaining “a team of independent experts” to review the actions of executives and employees prior to the time the tornado hit the plant. The executive said the company was confident its “team leaders acted entirely appropriately and were, in fact, heroic in their efforts to protect our employees.”

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