OSHA has announced 59 citations and nearly $1 million in penalties after an investigation into a nitrogen leak at a poultry processing plant that killed six workers and injured at least a dozen others earlier this year.
Workers had just begun their shift at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, Ga., when a freezer malfunctioned, releasing colorless, odorless nitrogen into the air, according to the Labor Department. The liquid nitrogen is used to freeze chicken. Six workers died of asphyxiation.
"Make no mistake. This was a very preventable tragedy," said Labor Secretary Marty Walsh.
Gainesville is a hub for poultry processing in Georgia, a state that produces some 30 million pounds of chicken each day. Foundation Food Group produces poultry products such as individually frozen chicken breasts and diced chicken for food service clients and national restaurant chains.
OSHA's investigation found that Foundation Food Group and three other companies with roles at the plant failed to implement necessary safety procedures to prevent the leak and train workers on the hazards of liquid nitrogen. Workers were not equipped with the knowledge or equipment needed to save lives, OSHA said.
The companies have 15 days to contest the findings.
Foundation Food Group, which faces nearly $600,000 in penalties, has not yet responded to NPR's request for comment.
Packers Sanitation Services, which provided cleaning services at the plant and faces $287,000 in fines, said in a statement that its employees were not on-site or involved in the operation or maintenance of the equipment that failed.
"While we cooperated with OSHA during the review, we fundamentally disagree with these citations and plan to contest them," the statement said.
The industrial gas company Messer, which provided nitrogen to the plant, said in a statement that it works with its customers on how to safely and properly operate and maintain the equipment. But because of pending litigation, it was unable to comment further.
In addition to the OSHA fine, Messer is facing a number of wrongful death lawsuits.
"The value of the lives that were lost far exceeds any fine that OSHA might issue," said Scott Campbell, a partner at the law firm Shiver Hamilton, which is representing the family of maintenance worker Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera in a wrongful death suit.
A fourth company, FS Group, which manufactures and services equipment, was also cited for failing to train workers on health hazards related to liquid nitrogen.
The OSHA citations were welcomed by Maria del Rosario Palacios, executive director of the community group Georgia Familias Unidas, which has been focused on improving working conditions at the plant. Palacios' mother and other family members work at area plants owned by Foundation Food Group.
She hopes the OSHA fines will push the company to address ongoing concerns about workplace hazards, including frequently blocked exits. Such hazards and injuries often go unreported, she says, because many of the workers are undocumented immigrants who fear retaliation.
"Our folks don't have the voice that they need to be able to combat these issues at work," says Palacios.
Six months after the tragedy, siblings and parents of the deceased continue to work at the plant, she says. "There is still a lot of grief."
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Six workers died from a nitrogen leak about six months ago at a poultry plant in Georgia. Now the U.S. Labor Department wants the companies responsible to pay nearly a million dollars in fines.
NPR's Andrea Hsu reports.
ANDREA HSU, BYLINE: The leak happened on January 28. Workers had just started their shift at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, Ga., when, according to the Labor Department, a freezer malfunctioned. Liquid nitrogen, which is colorless and odorless, was released into the air, displacing the oxygen. Six workers died of asphyxiation. At least a dozen were injured.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
MARTY WALSH: Make no mistake. This was a very preventable tragedy.
HSU: That's Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, who announced the OSHA citations yesterday. An investigation found that Foundation Food Group and three other companies with roles at the plant failed to implement safety procedures necessary to prevent the leak. It also found workers were not properly trained on the hazards of liquid nitrogen. They didn't have the knowledge or equipment that could have saved lives. The companies cited have about two weeks to contest the findings. Foundation Food Group has not responded to NPR's request for comment.
Maria del Rosario Palacios heads a group called Georgia Familias Unidas. They've been working to improve conditions at area poultry plants. Her own mother works at one of them. She hopes the fines will push Foundation Food Group to address workplace problems that the workers themselves fear raising. Many of them are undocumented immigrants.
MARIA DEL ROSARIO PALACIOS: Our folks don't have the voice that they need to be able to combat these issues at work.
HSU: She says, hazards and injuries often go unreported.
PALACIOS: The No. 1 response to a workplace incident is, well, are you sure you want to go to the hospital? - because remember, you're in this country illegally.
HSU: Beyond the OSHA citations, there are also lawsuits.
Scott Campbell is part of the legal team that's representing the family of Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera in a wrongful death suit against Messer, the industrial gas company that provided the nitrogen.
SCOTT CAMPBELL: Obviously, the value of the lives that were lost far exceeds any fine that OSHA might issue.
HSU: Messer said it was aware of the lawsuits. But due to pending litigation, it is unable to comment further.
Andrea Hsu, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.