GAINESVILLE, Ga. — The government on Friday called the deaths of six people in a nitrogen leak incident at a Gainesville poultry processing plant in January "preventable" and the operating company of that plant now faces nearly $600,000 in fines.
In a release, the U.S. Department of Labor said that the operator of the plant, Foundation Food Group, "failed to implement any of the safety procedures necessary to prevent the nitrogen leak, or to equip workers responding to it with the knowledge and equipment that could have saved their lives."
At least a dozen other injured workers were sent to the hospital when the leak occurred. In March, the cause of death of the six workers was ruled as "asphyxia due to, or as a consequence of liquid nitrogen exposure."
The Department of Labor's Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) cited 26 violations specifically to Foundation Food Group, among them:
- "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;"
- Failing to "provide workers with access to the safety data sheet on liquid nitrogen, or label the freezers properly with hazard warnings;"
- Failing to "perform a hazard assessment for exposure to liquid nitrogen;"
- Failing to "implement a permit-required confined space program for workers who entered the liquid nitrogen freezer, and notify contractors required to work inside the liquid nitrogen freezer that it was a permit-required confined space;"
- Failing to "make sure multiple egress paths in the facility were free from obstruction;"
- Failing to "illuminate exit signs, provide adequate lighting for exit routes, and ensure exit access was at least 28 inches wide."
Failures by three other companies - Messer LLC, an industrial gas company; Wisconsin-based Packers Sanitation Services Inc. Ltd.; and Alabama-based FS Group Inc. - were cited by the Department of Labor, and together face an additional roughly $400,000 in fines.
Messer was cited for "six serious violations," among them "expos(ing) workers to injuries and suffocation from the uncontrolled release of liquid nitrogen." Packer Sanitation Services was cited for serious training failures, and FS Group was also cited for training failures.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh called the loss of life and injuries in the incident "entirely avoidable."
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OSHA's regional administrator in Atlanta, Kurt Petermeyer, placed blame on the employer for the deaths of the six workers.
“This horrible tragedy could have been prevented had the employers taken the time to use – and teach their workers the importance of – safety precautions,” Petermeyer said. “Instead, six workers died as a result of their employers’ failure to follow necessary procedures and to comply with required safety and health standards."
The victims included 45-year-old Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera of Gainesville, 35-year-old Corey Alan Murphy of Clermont, 28-year-old Nelly Perez-Rafael of Gainesville, 41-year-old Saulo Suarez-Bernal of Dawsonville, 38-year-old Victor Vellez of Gainesville, and 28-year-old Edgar Vera-Garcia of Gainesville.
In April, a complaint was filed alleging a second gas leak at the plant in March, this time of ammonia.
A number of wrongful death lawsuits have been filed in the incident, and advocates have pressed for better worker protections in the wake of the leak.