Sunday, February 25, 2024

What fire inspectors found just days after nitrogen leak at Foundation Food Group

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By Nick Watson

The Times

GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Exit doors blocked by machinery and products. Emergency lights needing repair. Exit signs not illuminated.

These were some of the issues listed in Foundation Food Group’s inspection report by the Hall County Fire Marshal’s Office performed days after a nitrogen leak that left six dead and sent 12 people total to the hospital.

The Times (Gainesville, Ga.) acquired building inspection reports through an open records request from 2016, which is before Prime Pak became Foundation Food Group on Memorial Park Drive in Gainesville, through this year.

Local law enforcement and federal officials are continuing to investigate the Jan. 28 leak of liquid nitrogen. Hall County Fire Marshal Bryan Cash said an inspection performed this month was “a post-accident inspection at the facility, which was also due for a typical inspection.”

According to an inspection performed Feb. 1 at the plant, two exit signs were not illuminated and needed repair.

“Multiple exit doors and egress pathways are blocked by machinery and product,” according to the inspection report. “The exits and egress pathways must be free from obstructions.”

Photos attached to the report show stacks of products several feet high.

The hood suppression system in one of the cooking areas, which is intended to extinguish cooking fires, expired in May, according to the report.

One fire extinguisher was missing an inspection tag, according to the report.

Five citations were written by the fire marshal’s office for the issues listed in the report with an order to appear Wednesday, Feb. 10, in Magistrate Court.

The Times sent questions to multiple Foundation Food Group managers concerning the most recent and past inspections, the plant’s plans on contesting the citations and when it might resume operations. A response was sent by Paula Williams from Strahan Advertising:

“The fire department and fire marshal as well as other regulatory agencies regularly inspect our facilities. It’s not unusual for items to be noted for correction. The Foundation Food Group Prepared Foods Facility has never previously been shut down or restricted as a result of any item. We always immediately correct anything found by a regulatory agency that is not fully in compliance. The Fire Department is expected later this week to re-inspect and confirm all items have been corrected that were noted during last week’s full annual fire inspection. The building remains open, but will not resume production until that inspection occurs.

Foundation Food Group has been and remains fully committed to ensuring a safe workplace and fully cooperating with regulatory agencies. We are committed to taking all measures necessary to ensure the safety of our employees. FFG corrects any issues we identify as well as those identified by any regulatory agencies and will continue to vigilantly do so.”

Inspection reports from February and June of 2019 listed violations of the kitchen exhaust hood and portable fire extinguishers. These issues were also listed in an October 2018 inspection.

In August 2017, the fire marshal’s office wrote to the building manager regarding emergency lights and exit signs not illuminating.

“The Hall County Fire Marshal’s Office typically recommends that violations be resolved within 30 days if possible,” Cash wrote in an email. “However, a number of factors, including the severity of the infraction, are taken into consideration in regards to the appropriate time to take further action.”

Cash said any fines from the citations are recommended by the Hall County Solicitor’s Office and imposed by a Magistrate Court judge.

“Foundation Food Group has been instructed to notify the Hall County Fire Marshal’s Office when the violations have been corrected for a re-inspection of the facility,” Cash said. “They have been given (30) days for this to be corrected.”

On Feb. 7, federal investigators said the plant had been “experiencing unresolved operational issues” on a chicken conveyor “that appear to have resulted in the accidental release of liquid nitrogen” Jan. 28.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said Monday, Feb. 1, the incident happened on Line 4, where chicken is processed to “include seasoning, cooking, freezing and then repackaging.”

The board released new information Sunday, Feb. 7, saying the board “has information that Line No. 4 was shut down the morning of the incident.” The board said the shutdown was for “operational issues on the conveyor line.”

“The plant had been experiencing unresolved operational issues on the chicken conveyor that appear to have resulted in the accidental release of liquid nitrogen in the flash freezing bath,” the board said.

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