OSHA Issues $1M in Fines at Georgia Poultry Plant
6 people died due to a liquid nitrogen leak
In January of 2021, UCOMM Blog reported on a liquid nitrogen gas leak at a poultry plant in Gainesville Georgia. The leak killed six people and injured at least a dozen more. OSHA immediately began an investigation into the leak and is now bringing the hammer down on the companies involved.
In a statement from OSHA, the agency announced that they were issuing 59 citations and nearly $1 million in penalties to Freedom Foundation Group which owns the plant, and to three other companies involved in delivering gas, equipment, and workers. According to their investigation, just after a shift change a freezer at the plant malfunctioned and began releasing colorless, odorless liquid nitrogen into the plant’s air. This displaced the oxygen in the room making it harder to breathe. After the leak, three of the plant’s maintenance workers entered the freezer without precautions or safety equipment and were overcome immediately by the gas. Other workers then entered the room and were also overcome by the liquid nitrogen. OSHA found that none of these workers were trained on the deadly effects of nitrogen exposure even though they worked in a plant that had huge freezers that relied on liquid nitrogen.
OSHA found that five workers died immediately from the exposure while a sixth died on his way to the hospital. At least a dozen others were hospitalized.
“Six people’s deaths, and injuries suffered by at least a dozen others, were entirely avoidable,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “The Department of Labor is dedicated to upholding the law and using everything in our power to get justice for the workers’ families. The bottom line is no one should leave for work wondering if they’ll return home at the end of the day, and the Department of Labor is committed to holding bad actors accountable.”
During their investigation, OSHA found that Foundation Food Group and Messer LLC of Bridgewater, New Jersey, failed to implement any of the safety procedures necessary to prevent the nitrogen leak or to equip the responding workers with the knowledge and equipment to safely respond to the leak. OSHA cited Foundation Food Group, Messer LLC, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. Ltd. of Kieler, Wisconsin; and FS Group Inc. of Albertville, Alabama – all responsible for operations at the Gainesville facility – for a total of 59 violations and proposed $998,637 in penalties.
“This horrible tragedy could have been prevented had the employers taken the time to use – and teach their workers the importance of – safety precautions,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer in Atlanta. “Instead, six workers died as a result of their employers’ failure to follow necessary procedures and to comply with required safety and health standards. We hope other industry employers learn from this terrible incident and comply with safety and health requirements to prevent similar incidents.”
Foundation Food Group was hit with 26 of the violations including six willful violations for exposing workers to thermal injuries and suffocation hazards resulting from the uncontrolled release of liquid nitrogen; failing to develop, document, and use lockout procedures; not informing employees that liquid nitrogen, an asphyxiate, was used in the onsite freezer; not training employees on the methods and observations used to detect the presence or release of nitrogen; failing to train workers on the hazards of liquid nitrogen, and not training employees on the emergency procedures they can take to protect themselves.
They also fined Messer LLC, which delivered the industrial gas to the plant for six serious violations including finding that Messer exposed workers to injuries and suffocation from the uncontrolled release of liquid nitrogen; failed to ensure an egress path was unobstructed; and did not develop, document and use lockout procedures, nor ensure lockout procedures were shared between the host employer and contractors. Messer faces $74,118 in penalties.
Additionally, they hit Packers Sanitation Services which provided cleaning and sanitation services to the plant with 17 serious and two repeat violations for failing to train workers on the hazards of liquid nitrogen and anhydrous ammonia and not ensuring emergency eyewashes were available and unobstructed.
The companies have 15 days to appeal these fines which they are expected to do. The news of the fines was welcomed by worker advocacy groups in the area including by Maria del Rosario Palacios, the executive director of the community group Georgia Familias Unidas who has been focusing on improving working conditions at the plant. She told NPR that she hopes the fines will push the company to address ongoing concerns about workplace hazards. She said that many of the workers are undocumented immigrants and don’t speak up for fear of retaliation. "Our folks don't have the voice that they need to be able to combat these issues at work," says Palacios.
In addition to the fine, Messer is also facing a wrongful death lawsuit from one of the maintenance workers' families. "The value of the lives that were lost far exceeds any fine that OSHA might issue," said Scott Campbell, a partner at the law firm Shiver Hamilton, which is representing the family of maintenance worker Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera in a wrongful death suit.