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Deaths of 6 poultry plant workers "entirely avoidable," Labor Secretary says

Six people dead after nitrogen leak
Six people dead after nitrogen leak 02:05

A chicken processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia, failed to take any of the safety steps necessary to prevent a nitrogen leak that killed six workers and injured at least a dozen others, the Department of Labor said Friday in proposing nearly $1 million in penalties.

The DOL's Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the January 28, 2021, incident at the Food Foundation Group facility, finding 59 violations and proposing $998,637 in penalties against the company and two other entities. 

Six workers died of asphyxiation after entering a freezer room where an equipment malfunction caused the release of colorless, odorless liquid nitrogen into the air, OSHA found. Liquid nitrogen is used to flash-freeze chicken products at the plant, which employs about 180 people, many of them immigrants fearful of deportation, Kurt Petermeyer, regional administrator for OSHA in Atlanta, said.

According to the agency, three maintenance workers entered the room without any precautions, and were overcome immediately. None were trained on the deadly effects of nitrogen exposure. Others followed and were also overcome, with five employees dying on the spot and another on the way to the hospital. At least a dozen others needed hospital care. 

The deaths and injuries "were entirely avoidable," U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh told a news conference detailing the citations against the company and several other business entities responsible for operations at the still-running poultry plant. 

Prior incidents, violations and an ongoing probe

Food Foundation Group failed to use available "knowledge and equipment that could have saved" the workers' lives, said Petermeyer, who noted the company allowed the position of safety manager to be vacant for more than a year.  

OSHA is investigating reports of an ammonia release at the plant in March, but could not elaborate further on the ongoing probe, he said. 

The poultry processor previously paid more than $40,000 to settle two separate incidents involving workers losing fingers in 2017, according to the agency. The facility also paid $3,750 to settle violations regarding employee face and eye protections in 2019.

"The plant continues to operate and function," Petermeyer told Friday's news conference. "OSHA does not have the authority to shut down a business, per se," he added.  

A spokesperson for Foundation did not respond to a request for comment.

Walsh urged Congress to give the DOL and OSHA greater leeway in levying larger penalties when businesses disregard laws in place to protect workers, saying some companies view the fines as "the cost of doing business."

Foundation Food Group has 15 days to respond to OSHA's action citing the company for 26 violations, including not telling its workers that liquid nitrogen was used in the freezer, and failing to develop and use lockout procedures. 

The company supplies poultry products to food service, retail and restaurant chains, and employs about 1,200 people at four processing plants in Georgia. 

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