The company that operated a Kentucky candle factory leveled by a deadly winter tornado plans to ramp up production with a $33 million investment at 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 people full time in the next five years at its factory in Hickory as it builds back production. The company's plant in Mayfield took a direct hit from the tornado that devastated the town last December.
Several workers died at the factory — among the 81 people who died in Kentucky as the storms tore through parts of western Kentucky. Thousands left homeless found shelter with relatives and friends, or in emergency facilities, hotels and state parks.
Beshear, a Democrat, touted the economic development news Thursday without mentioning workplace citations leveled 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 on Thursday through an open records request.
Asked later Thursday about the citations, the governor's office didn't immediately comment.
The company also is defending itself against a lawsuit claiming it showed “flagrant indifference” by refusing to allow employees to go home early as the storm approached. Company officials did not immediately return calls Thursday seeking comment about the citations.
Beshear said more job announcements will be forthcoming as the Mayfield region continues to dig out from massive tornado damage.
“This expansion will re-establish the company’s employment base in the region and adds to the overall rebuilding efforts,” the governor said at his weekly news conference.
The governor has made repeated trips to western Kentucky in support of recovery efforts. He was on hand recently when three families were handed keys to new homes in Mayfield — the first houses to be fully constructed there since the tornado.
Mayfield Consumer Products had already started construction on one expansion at its location in the Hickory industrial park. It now plans another bigger expansion that will consolidate its operations following the destruction of its Mayfield plant. Hickory is about 6 miles (9.5 kilometers) from Mayfield. The total investment planned is $33.3 million, the governor's office said.
Company founder Mary Propes said the expansion shows the company's “resolve to rebuild here and to play a central role in helping to restore the place we call home.”
"This community has a bright future, and we are committed to being a big part of that progress,” she said in a news 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 the Labor Cabinet documents.
The citations claim the company failed to keep an exit route hallway “free and unobstructed,” did not maintain an alarm system to warn employees of fire or other emergencies and failed to review an emergency action plan with each employee. Each alleged violation carries a proposed $7,000 fine.
The company had 15 days — excluding weekends — to contest the citations. A Labor Cabinet spokeswoman said she didn't immediately know if the company had appealed.
An attorney involved in the storm-related litigation blasted the company for the citations.
“Those of us representing the displaced former employees in the tornado certainly hope that the new facilities comply with state safety laws, given that that company was slapped with serious violations," attorney Amos Jones said by phone Thursday.
The lawsuit was filed in state court days after the tornado but has since been moved to federal court, based on a motion filed by the defendants, Jones said. The plaintiffs are attempting to have the suit returned to state court, he said.
“Either way, the defendants can’t run from what they did,” Jones said.,
The suit accuses Mayfield Consumer Products of violating Kentucky workplace standards by keeping its staff at work despite the danger of death and injury. The suit claims that workers were threatened with termination if they left in the hours before the tornado hit. The suit seeks compensatory and punitive damages.
A company spokesman said last December that employees were free to leave anytime, and he denied that they would have faced retribution if they did. A company executive said then that the company was retaining “an independent expert team” to review the actions of managers and employees leading up to when the tornado struck the factory. The executive said the company was confident that its “team leaders acted entirely appropriately and were, in fact, heroic in their efforts to shelter our employees.”