On the Picket Line

Pennsylvania chocolate factory explodes, killing seven workers

By Osborne Hart
April 17, 2023

WEST READING, Pa. — One of the buildings at the R.M. Palmer chocolate factory here exploded and burned to the ground March 24. The blast killed seven people inside the plant. At least 10 others were taken to the hospital. 

Machine operator Patricia Borges, one of the survivors, told the media her arm caught fire. She fell through the floor into a vat of liquid chocolate. She and some of her co-workers had complained about smelling gas before the explosion. Since then, the local natural gas company, UGI, has stationed an emergency trailer outside the remaining company structures. 

Luis Martinez, a postal worker who lives next to the plant, told the Militant  his house shook with the explosion. “I rushed out to look down the block” and saw flames, smoke and rubble.

The next day UGI workers went door to door checking the meter and gas connection in everyone’s basement. Martinez showed me a UGI flyer saying they were checking for possible leaks. A number of area residents said they’ve long complained about smelling gas. “Now we are buying little gas detectors online or at Home Depot,” he said. 

In addition to the explosive potential of the gas people smelled, many components used in making chocolate, like cocoa powder and highly flammable powdered starch, as well as other fine dusts, are all explosive hazards at food plants like Palmer’s. Government officials say they are investigating. 

“Why did this happen?” Martinez asked. “Palmer isn’t saying nothing. Palmer and UGI are at fault.” 

Tim Burns, a retired printer who has lived his entire life two blocks from the plant, agreed, saying, “This didn’t have to happen. People didn’t have to die.

“How is it that nobody in the plant was evacuated when they told people about the smell?” he asked. “It’s all about greed.”

The Palmer company, established in 1948, is one of the largest U.S. chocolate producers. Its seasonal candies and other products are sold through Walmart, CVS and other chains.