Companies were fined $1 million after officials said a poultry plant leak that killed 6 employees was ‘entirely avoidable’

A photos of the Foundation Food Group sign with police tape in front of it.
Tanks of liquid nitrogen are seen at the Prime Pak Foods poultry processing plant after a liquid nitrogen leak earlier in the day resulted in six deaths and multiple hospitalizations on January 28, 2021, in Gainesville, Georgia. ELIJAH NOUVELAGE/AFP via Getty Images
  • A liquid nitrogen leak at a poultry plant in Georgia killed six workers in January.
  • Federal officials said Friday their deaths were “entirely avoidable” had the proper precautions been taken.
  • Four companies have been fined a total of near $US1 ($AU1) million in the incident.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Four companies have been fined a total of almost $US1 ($AU1) million for a liquid nitrogen leak at a poultry plant in Gainesville, Georgia that killed six employees, federal officials said Friday.

An investigation by the Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration found Foundation Food Group and Messer “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,” the agency said in a statement.

Foundation Food Group is a poultry processing company based in Gainesville. Messer is an industrial gas company based in Bridgewater, New Jersey, that installed the freezer system at the plant that was the source of the leak.

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The leak occurred on January 28 when a freezer at the poultry processing facility malfunctioned, “releasing colorless, odorless liquid nitrogen into the plant’s air, displacing the oxygen in the room,” the statement said.

Three plant maintenance workers entered the freezer and died immediately. OSHA said they had never been trained on the dangers of liquid nitrogen. Two other workers also died immediately, and a sixth died while en route to the hospital. At least a dozen other workers at the facility were injured and transported to hospitals.

“Six people’s deaths, and injuries suffered by at least a dozen others, were entirely avoidable,” U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said in the statement. “The Department of Labor is dedicated to upholding the law and using everything in our power to get justice for the workers’ families.”

The victims were identified by the Hall County Sheriff’s office as Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45; Corey Alan Murphy, 35; Nelly Perez-Rafael, 28; Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41; Victor Vellez, 38; and Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28.

Gainesville is often called the “Poultry Capital of the World” due to its large number of poultry plants. The city has a population of about 40,000 people, about 40% of which are Hispanic.

The OSHA statement said repeatedly that the deaths were avoidable had the proper precautions been taken.

“This horrible tragedy could have been prevented had the employers taken the time to use – and teach their workers the importance of – safety precautions,” Kurt Petermeyer, an OSHA regional administrator in Atlanta, said. “We hope other industry employers learn from this terrible incident and comply with safety and health requirements to prevent similar incidents.”

The companies were cited for 59 violations, totaling $US998,673 ($AU1,355,623) in fines.

The other two companies implicated were Packers Sanitation Services of Kieler, Wisconsin, which provided cleaning and sanitation services to the plant, and FSGroup of Albertville, Alabama, which manufactures equipment and provides mechanical servicing.

Insider has reached out to all four companies for comment.

Foundation Food Group said in a statement to The New York Times that it would challenge some of the citations that “it believes to be unjustified and unsupported by the facts.” It said it would continue working to address the “root cause,” which it said had to do with a bent tube on the freezer that could not accurately measure the amount of liquid nitrogen. The tube was not addressed in OSHA’s citations.

Packers Sanitation Services told the Times it disagreed with its fines and that its employees “were in no way involved with this tragic incident.”

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