Federal workplace safety officials have proposed nearly $1 million in fines against four companies after finding that they could have prevented the deaths of six workers from a liquid nitrogen leak at a poultry plant in Gainesville, Ga., in January.
Foundation Food Group, a Gainesville-based poultry processing company, as well as Messer, of Bridgewater, N.J., an industrial gas company that installed the liquid nitrogen freezer system at the plant, “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 Occupational Safety and Health Administration said in a statement on Friday.
The agency cited the two companies as well as Packers Sanitation Services, of Kieler, Wis., which provided cleaning and sanitation services at the plant, and FSGroup, of Albertville, Ala., which manufactures equipment and provides mechanical servicing, for a total 59 violations and proposed that they pay a total of $998,637 in penalties.
Foundation Food Group would pay the largest sum, $595,474, after it was cited for 26 violations, including six willful violations for exposing workers to thermal injuries and suffocation hazards resulting from the uncontrolled release of the liquid nitrogen. Packers Sanitation Services faces the next-largest fine, $286,720.
The proposed penalties came after a freezer at the Foundation Food Group plant malfunctioned on Jan. 28, releasing colorless, odorless liquid nitrogen into the air that displaced the oxygen in the room, the agency said.
Three of the plant’s maintenance workers, who had never been trained on the deadly effects of nitrogen exposure, entered the freezer and were immediately overcome, the agency said. All three died immediately.
Other workers entered the room and were also overcome. Two of those workers died immediately, and the sixth died on the way to the hospital. At least a dozen others were injured, the agency said.
The Hall County Sheriff’s Office identified the six workers who died 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.
Their deaths opened a deep well of pain and grief in Gainesville, the self-proclaimed chicken capital of the world. The city of 43,000 is about 40 percent Latino.
“Six people’s deaths, and injuries suffered by at least a dozen others, were entirely avoidable,” Martin J. Walsh, the secretary of labor, said in a statement. “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.”
Shelly Anand, a lawyer who represents some of the workers who were at the plant during the nitrogen leak, said the penalties “feel really minuscule and insignificant” only because the fines that OSHA can levy are capped.
“Overall, OSHA did everything they have the legal capacity to do,” she said. “We need Congress to act and let penalties be higher for willful violations.”
The companies have 15 business days from receipt of their citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with the agency’s area director, or contest the findings before an independent Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.
Foundation Food Group said that the citations did not directly address the cause of the liquid nitrogen leak.
“FFG will challenge those aspects of the OSHA citations which it believes to be unjustified and unsupported by the facts,” the company said in a statement. “FFG will also continue working with the remaining parties, including the United States Chemical Safety Board, to ensure the root cause is clarified, rectified and that employees are protected in the workplace.”
In the statement, the company said the freezer had a single safety device that measured the level of liquid nitrogen. That device, a bubbler tube, was bent so that it could not properly measure the level of liquid nitrogen or shut off the supply if the level was too high, the company said.
But OSHA did not issue a single citation that addresses the bent tube or that will otherwise prevent another release of liquid nitrogen from the many liquid nitrogen freezers used across the country in ice cream shops and meat processing facilities, said Dane Steffenson, a lawyer who represents Foundation Food.
The company added that it “takes safety seriously and deeply regrets the accident.”
A woman who answered the phone at FSGroup said that no one was available to comment.
Packers Sanitation Services said its employees were not at the plant at the time of the leak and “were in no way involved with this tragic incident.”
“We are also not involved in the operation or mechanical maintenance of this equipment,” the company said. “While we cooperated with OSHA during the review, we fundamentally disagree with these citations and plan to contest them.”
Messer, which has 70 production facilities and about 5,400 employees in North and South America, said it was reviewing the citations and “had no further comment about them at this time.”
The company said it had cooperated with federal investigators and was “committed to learning from the investigations into this tragic incident and doing its part to prevent it from happening again.”
Messer said that it recommended safety precautions to control nitrogen hazards, including the use of atmospheric monitoring and personal oxygen detectors for employees who work with nitrogen indoors.
The company added that because of wrongful-death and personal injury lawsuits that have been filed against it, “we are unable to comment further at this time, but are committed to each investigation and our shared goal of discerning the cause of this tragic accident.”