Manufacturing at the movies: Willy Wonka and the health, safety, and labor violations factory

Manufacturing at the movies: Willy Wonka and the health, safety, and labor violations factory

March 8, 2024
It’s not Upton Sinclaire’s “The Jungle,” but it’s not too far off.

On a recent episode of Great Question: A Manufacturing Podcast, premiering Saturday March 9, Thomas Wilk, Anna Townshend, Laura Davis, and I talked about some of our favorite movies that feature industrial maintenance, reliability, and manufacturing. I selected a movie that takes a hard look at the food and beverage industry, particularly confectionery production, and the many health, safety, and sanitary issues that arise. I’m speaking, of course, about “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.”

Listen to the podcast episode

Based on the classic novel by Roald Dahl, “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” is a movie musical from 1971 starring Gene Wilder. It’s the story of Charlie Bucket, a poor but kindhearted child, who finds a Golden Ticket in a chocolate bar and wins a visit to Willy Wonka's chocolate factory and a chance at a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. Madness ensues as Charlie, his grandfather, four other children, and their parents see firsthand “how the chocolate is made.” It’s not Upton Sinclaire’s “The Jungle,” but it’s not too far off. When you watch the movie as a child, you see it as a whimsical romp through a world where anything is possible. When you watch it as an adult, however, all you see are labor violations, safety hazards, research and development fails, and corporate espionage. Do you think I’m overexaggerating? Let’s break it down point by point.

Industrial espionage

At the beginning of the film, we are told that Willy Wonka initially had to shut down his factory because rival candy companies were sending spies dressed as workers to steal Wonka’s secret recipes. It’s revealed to Charlie and the audience that Arthur Slugworth, president of Slugworth Chocolates Inc., was the worst perpetrator of them all. In fact, a man claiming to be Slugworth approaches each of the children prior to the factory tour, promising to make them rich if they provide him with an Everlasting Gobstopper so that he can replicate the formula. Despite all this, production at Wonka’s factory resumes just three years later, with increased output, but the gates remained locked. To quote the odd man with a cart of knives, “Nobody ever goes in, and nobody ever comes out.”

It turns out, corporate espionage of this magnitude was common in the candy industry in the real-world during Roald Dahl’s life. According to an article for Slate, “During Dahl’s childhood, the two largest British candy firms, Cadbury and Rowntree, sent so many moles to work in competitors’ factories that their spying became legendary. The real-life espionage became so pervasive that candy makers in Europe—where virtually all of the important industry innovations were taking place—began routinely employing detectives to keep track of workers. Sensitive manufacturing processes were off-limits to all but the most loyal workers. And outsiders dealing with candy makers were forced to sign strict, highly punitive confidentiality agreements.”

Labor violations

Speaking of loyal workers, the Wonka factory is run entirely by Oompa-Loompas. These humanoid creatures with orange skin and green hair are from Loompaland. Wonka describes the place as a terrible country with nothing but desolate waste and fierce bests. Wonka then “rescues” the Oompa-Loompas from their homeland, transports the entire population to his factory, and grants them “the opportunity” to work in the plant.

It is very clear that the Oompa-Loompas are undocumented workers. Given the children’s reaction to the Wonka employees when they first see them, it’s clear that the government and society as a whole are unaware of the existence of Oompa-Loompas or their native country. Despite their hard work, the Oompa-Loompas are paid in coco beans, not money. They are never seen leaving the factory, which implies that they live and work nonstop at the plant. With this information, Wanka’s facility seems more like a company town than a childlike wonderland.

Sanitary issues

Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory is an unhygienic mess. When the visitors enter the chocolate room, they are encouraged to touch, taste, and eat everything they see. This in and of itself isn’t a problem, until you realize that this room is also being used for manufacturing. Mere steps from the children, workers are setting up raw materials and equipment for creaming and sugaring time. Also, none of the workers or the children are wearing sterile garments or protection of any kind.

A nearby waterfall is mixing and churning the chocolate to be used in various products. When Augustus Gloop begins drinking from the river, which moves more than 10,000 gallons of chocolate an hour, he contaminates an untold amount of product. It only becomes worse when the young boy falls into the chocolate and is sucked up into a pipe. Despite Wonka being upset about Augustus contaminating his chocolate, he seems to have no issue riding in a boat through that same river of chocolate. We never see how the plant deals with this quality issue, if the product is disposed of, or if there is a purification process in place.

And it only gets worse from there. Right before the children enter the inventing room, Charlie and his grandfather see a store room that claims to contain dairy cream, whipped cream, coffee cream, vanilla cream, and hair cream. At the very least, it means that Wonka is storing perishable, food-grade products with cosmetic products, allowing for cross contamination. At worst, the factory is producing both non-food products and candy at the same time, possibly in the same location. 

Throughout the film, but especially in the inventing room, Wonka touches and then tastes various products and raw materials, and even throws everyday objects like shoes and clocks into pots and pans. Nothing is clean. Nothing is sterile. Even the parents are aware of the sanitary issues. “You got a garbage strike going on here, Wonka?” they say. “Shouldn’t you be wearing rubber gloves?” “You’ll have the health inspectors after you, you know that.” 

Safety violations

As the children first enter the factory, Wonka says, “Little surprises around every corner, but nothing dangerous.” That is a boldfaced lie, and Wonka knows it. Why else would he have the children sign a contract that reads: “The management cannot be held responsible for any accidents, incidents, loss of properly or live or limb…” Side note, I’m not a lawyer, but isn’t a contact signed by children unenforceable? Regardless, an OSHA inspector would have a field day at Wonka’s plant. Here are just a few of the numerous safety violations:

  • None of the participants on the tour are given safety training or gear
  • There are no guardrails around the chocolate river, making it easy for a worker or a child to fall in
  • There are no safety plans in place to help visitors and employees when foreseeable accidents occur
  • There is no guarding on any machines or equipment throughout the facility
  • The Oompa-Loompas operate various complex machines but are rarely wearing PPE or other protective gear
  • The Everlasting Gobstopper machine is draped in cloth to protect it from prying eyes, but this also makes it a fire hazard
  • There are large pots with exposed, boiling liquids inside
  • Several machines produce smoke and steam that is not trapped or vented
  • Walkways are obstructed
  • Product and raw materials are spilled all over the floors, creating slip and fall hazards
  • There are no rails or handles in the fizzy lifting room where taste testers float in the air
  • The fan in ceiling of the fizzy lifting room is unguarded and almost kills two people
  • There are tall stacks of unsecured boxes that end up toppling to the ground
  • The Wonka Mobile has no seatbelts and spews chemicals all over the riders
  • The great glass elevator crashes through the ceiling. Do I have to say any more?

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