On the morning of January 28, 2021, the first 911 call was made from the Foundation Food Group facility in Gainesville, Georgia. The caller identified himself as Zach Hoover, the plant’s director, requesting an ambulance be sent to the plant. Subsequent calls indicated that something more urgent was going on within the plant, confirmed by the fourth call to 911.
Again calling 911, Hoover was now in the rear of the facility, indicating that he had multiple employees affected by liquid nitrogen. He indicated that several were having trouble breathing and were cold – like they were freezing. Firefighters took over for Hoover, who evacuated the building.
The liquid nitrogen leak is to blame for the death of six employees and a dozen other employees’ injured and taken to a local hospital for treatment. A total of 130 employees were evacuated from the facility by school bus to a nearby church for evaluation.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) have begun their preliminary investigation into the cause of the liquid nitrogen leak within the plant. These officials believe that the leak came from Line 4, originally an ammonia-based line replaced by liquid nitrogen in 2020.
The plant now uses liquid nitrogen to freeze chicken on this line after being prepared, seasoned, and cooked. It is frozen prior to packaging by being immersed in liquid nitrogen to maintain freshness.
The original unit had not been removed from the area and was still positioned adjacent to the new line. There were tools found in the area pointing to unscheduled maintenance, which could be the source of the leak. CSB has already indicated that it could be years before the investigation is complete depending on the complexity. Despite the preliminary findings, they were adamant that the investigation was not complete.
Further investigation concluded that OSHA had already opened an investigation into Foundation Food Group in December 2020. This investigation took place shortly after Prime Pak Foods entered a partnership with Victory Processing Inc. to become Foundation Food Group. The reason for the investigation has not been made public, so there is no indication that it relates to the current situation.
Liquid nitrogen can create unsafe situations in two ways – with extreme cold or releasing nitrogen gas into the air. Nitrogen pushes the available oxygen out of the space, making it difficult to breathe. The gas is odorless and tasteless and is often referred to as a silent killer. Those who become affected by the gas are often too disoriented to realize before it becomes too late.
Nitrogen is an inert gas that holds an important place in many industrial settings. An inert gas is one that does not undergo a chemical reaction under a set of given conditions. You might also hear of it being referred to as a “noble gas.” High concentrations of nitrogen can range from physical and mental impairment up to and including death due to asphyxiation.
In the liquid form, nitrogen is often used for freezing. Direct contact with skin can cause burns that closely resemble frostbite. If consumed through food or drink, liquid nitrogen can cause burns to the mouth, esophagus, and upper airways. The rupture of organs could even result, which is deadly.
The use of liquid nitrogen should always be done with safety in mind. These practices include handling it in well-ventilated areas as oxygen deficiency can occur quickly with nitrogen in the air. Situations can turn deadly relatively quickly. All handling should be done with the proper personal protective equipment to avoid burns or other injuries as a result.
There is a requirement for anyone using liquid nitrogen to undergo training, which should be documented as a part of workplace safety. There is no indication that Foundation Food Group had administered safety training for the new liquid nitrogen cryogenic freezer lines. The line was shut down once the leak was discovered within the facility, reducing the amount of gas leaked into the area.
Have you been injured due to a nitrogen leak? You may be entitled to compensation that goes beyond the worker’s compensation claims you will file with your employer. TorkLaw offices handle the cases where a nitrogen leak in the workplace has injured you or someone you love. In the extreme circumstances where someone has died, our legal professionals can help put together a wrongful death claim. Call now for your free consultation at 888.845.9696.