By David B. Strickland
Poultry Times editor
GAINESVILLE, Ga. — A liquid nitrogen leak at the Foundation Food Group poultry processing facility, formerly Prime Pak Foods, in Gainesville, Ga., on Thursday, Jan. 28, killed six employees. Five of the employees died at the plant, and another at the local hospital.
Twelve employees were taken to Northeast Georgia Medical Center, along with several firefighters who were injured and suffering respiratory complaints. The remaining employees, approximately 130, at the site at the time of the accident were evacuated to nearby Free Chapel church. Students at Lyman Hall Elementary School, which is close to the plant, were kept indoors at the school until it was determined that the leak had been contained.
The six victims ranged in age from 28 to 45, five men and one woman.
Social groups are working with employees and their families.
The company reported that a “tragic accident” had occurred at the facility at about 10 a.m. on Jan. 28.
“Preliminary indications are that a nitrogen line ruptured at the facility,” Nicholas Ancrum, vice president for human resources with Foundation Food Group, said during a news conference. “We are sad to say that six team members have died, and others were transported to the hospital with very serious injuries. We were fortunate enough to immediately evacuate 130 team members to a safe location and all who required care received treatment. Steps were also taken to protect everyone else in the surrounding area from exposure. Those lost today include maintenance, supervisory and management team members.”
“Every team member is equally important to us and our hearts go out to their families and communities that have suffered such a devastating loss,” Ancrum said. He added that the company is working with investigators and is making “every resource available.”
“Until this investigation is completed, we cannot say with confidence how this accident occurred,” Ancrum added. “Foundation Food Group takes workplace safety very seriously and works constantly to adopt and implement the most effective safety program available to the industry.”
Details of the accident have not yet been released. Poultry processing plants use liquid nitrogen in refrigeration systems.
Fire investigators and OSHA are continuing an investigation into the incident.
This fatal accident happens at a time when injuries and illnesses at poultry processing plants were reported as decreasing.
At the end of last year, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics, noted that the 2019 total recordable poultry processing illness and injury rate was 3.2 cases per 100 full-time workers annually. It was noted that the poultry rate of 3.2 was below the rate of 5.1 for other agricultural industries.
“The past two decades have shown a noteworthy decrease in the numbers and rates of injury and illnesses,” the Joint Industry Safety and Health Council said in a statement. “However, the poultry industry remains committed to pursuing new and resourceful ways to safeguard our workforce.”
Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said. “The health and safety of workers must be a top priority at poultry plants, the same plants that are providing essential food on dinner tables in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. Had simple safety protocols been followed today workers lives wouldn’t have been on the line . . . We cannot allow this to continue to happen. Workers’ lives are not disposable.”
This fatal accident comes as tragic news to the Georgia poultry industry, being the leading state for broilers in the nation.
“While the poultry industry is large, it is also a community of people and businesses that cares about each other very much regardless of competition in the marketplace,” said Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation.
“We are all deeply saddened by this, and the thoughts and prayers of everyone associated with the poultry industry are with the families of those affected by this tragic situation,” Giles said.