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Probe of Gainesville fatal liquid nitrogen leak will likely examine plant conditions

Contractors and health protocols at the plant may also be scrutinized.

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — A fatal accident at a poultry plant on Thursday cast a harsh light on one of Georgia's largest industries. 

Now, an investigation will examine whether conditions at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville contributed to a leak of liquid nitrogen that led to the deaths of six workers.

Although the poultry industry is one of Georgia’s largest, attorneys and activists say the work is sometimes dangerous, as well as exhausting and vulnerable to accidents.

Georgia politicians like to boast that the Peach State is actually the nation’s top producer of chicken.  Yet, news cameras are almost never allowed inside chicken plants, where most workers are unskilled and where the workload can be crushing.

"I’ve seen women in (plants) that have their arms -- they’re swollen -- and they force themselves to work because this is all that they have," said Bridgette Simpson. 

RELATED: Gainesville facility where liquid nitrogen leak happened previously cited for 'serious' violations, partial amputation

Simpson said she spent a year and a half working in two north Georgia chicken processing plants until she was fired in 2018. She said she did not work at the plant where the fatal accident took place on Thursday.

She said that liquid nitrogen is used in chicken plants to flash-freeze the processed meat. She said the incident on Thursday did not surprise her.

"I immediately thought hundreds (of fatalities had taken place)," Simpson said. "Because they have us packed in there like sardines. It's literally a cesspool."

There are about 40 processing plants in Georgia, employing about 35,000 workers, according to Mike Giles of the Georgia Poultry Federation. Giles said the industry takes painstaking steps to ensure the safety of workers.

RELATED: 'I'm standing with a guy who's been frozen by liquid nitrogen. He's barely breathing.' | 911 calls from Gainesville leak released

Chicken plants were forced to change some of their safety protocols last year after the coronavirus outbreak, which took the lives of some plant workers around Gainesville and elsewhere in Georgia.

Attorney Bruce Hagen said he expects investigators to examine if those changes played a role in the fatal accident. 

"The poultry industry is largely like many an unskilled labor force that is vulnerable to this sort of thing," Hagen said. 

He predicted that a rigorous federal investigation will not only focus on the plant itself, but on potential contractors who may have had a role in maintaining the equipment at the site of the accident.


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