On Jan. 28, 2021, six workers went to work at a Gainesville, GA poultry processing facility unaware that they would not return home. Just after their shift began, a freezer at the plant malfunctioned, releasing colorless, odorless liquid nitrogen into the plant’s air, displacing the oxygen in the room.
Three of the plant’s maintenance workers entered the freezer room without precautions – never trained on the deadly effects of nitrogen exposure – and were overcome immediately. Other workers entered the room and were also overcome. The three maintenance workers and two other workers died immediately, a sixth died on the way to the hospital. At least a dozen other injured workers needed hospital care.
“Six people’s deaths, and injuries suffered by at least a dozen others, were entirely avoidable,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh. “The Department of Labor is dedicated to upholding the law and using everything in our power to get justice for the workers’ families. 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.”
The U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration investigated the incident, and found that Foundation Food Group Inc. and Messer LLC of Bridgewater, New Jersey, 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. OSHA cited Foundation Food Group, Messer LLC, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. Ltd. of Kieler, Wisconsin; and FS Group Inc. of Albertville, Alabama – all responsible for operations at the Gainesville facility – for a total of 59 violations and proposed $998,637 in penalties.
“This horrible tragedy could have been prevented had the employers taken the time to use – and teach their workers the importance of – safety precautions,” said OSHA Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer in Atlanta. “Instead, six workers died as a result of their employers’ failure to follow necessary procedures and to comply with required safety and health standards. We hope other industry employers learn from this terrible incident and comply with safety and health requirements to prevent similar incidents.”
OSHA cited Foundation Food Group Inc. for 26 violations, including 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. In addition, the employer failed to:
- Provide workers with access to the safety data sheet on liquid nitrogen, or label the freezers properly with hazard warnings.
- Perform a hazard assessment for exposure to liquid nitrogen.
- 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.
- Make sure multiple egress paths in the facility were free from obstruction.
- Illuminate exit signs, provide adequate lighting for exit routes, and ensure exit access was at least 28 inches wide.
As a result of these violations, Foundation Food Group faces $595,474 in penalties.
OSHA also cited Messer LLC, which delivered the industrial gas, for six serious violations. The agency found Messer exposed workers to injuries and suffocation from the uncontrolled release of liquid nitrogen; failed to ensure an egress path was unobstructed; and did not develop, document and use lockout procedures, nor ensure lockout procedures were shared between the host employer and contractors. Messer faces $74,118 in penalties.
The agency cited Packers Sanitation Services Inc. Ltd., which provided cleaning and sanitation services at the facility, for 17 serious, and two repeat violations for failing to train workers on the hazards of liquid nitrogen and anhydrous ammonia, and not ensuring emergency eye washes were available and unobstructed. OSHA cited the employer in 2017 and 2018 for similar violations. In addition, OSHA found Packers failed to:
- Train workers on the emergency procedures related to liquid nitrogen and anhydrous ammonia, and provide workers with access to the data sheet on liquid nitrogen.
- Ensure egress paths were unobstructed.
- Ensure exit signs were illuminated, and provide adequate lighting for exit routes.
- Implement a written permit space entry program.
- Make sure that adequate lockout procedures were used.
- Coordinate lockout procedures with Foundation Food Group.
As a result of these violations, Packers Sanitation Services faces $286,720 in penalties.
OSHA also cited FS Group Inc., which manufactures equipment and provides mechanical servicing, for eight serious violations for failing to train workers on the physical and health hazards of liquid nitrogen and emergency procedures related to liquid nitrogen. The company also failed to ensure the development and use of specific written lockout procedures and ensure that the host employer and contractors shared information on lockout procedures. FS Group Inc. faces $42,325 in penalties.