Six factory workers are found dead after nitrogen gas leak. Many others injured.
At least six people are confirmed dead after an leak at the Foundation Food Group’s prepared foods plant in Gainesville, Georgia. A preliminary investigation found a nitrogen line ruptured inside the building, and the incident has union officials asking questions about safety protocols at the facility.
Nicholas Ancrum, the vice president for human resources at the Foundation Food Group, said, “Preliminary indications are that a nitrogen line ruptured inside the facility. 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 who have suffered such a devastating loss.”
Stuart Appelbaum, the president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, called the accident “a complete and utter tragedy,” adding, “Had simple safety protocols been followed today, workers’ lives wouldn’t have been on the line. The egregious lack of standards at nonunion facilities like the one in Gainesville cost essential workers their lives today.”
Firefighters and first responders discovered many of the employees had evacuated after the incident by the time they arrived and numerous victims were “experiencing medical emergencies around the facility,” Chief Zach Brackett said.
Beth Downs, a medical center spokesperson added, “Five people were found dead inside the plant, and a sixth person died after being taken to the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville. Three others are in critical condition, and five, including one firefighter, are in fair condition. Another three were taken to the hospital and released. All those who were hospitalized had respiratory problems.”
The names of the victims are unknown. However, Mexican government officials confirmed that two were Mexican citizens. A total of 130 people were taken by school buses to a church for evaluation by medical personnel, Chief Brackett confirmed.
Records show in 2015, the prepared foods plant was fined more than $100,000 for about nearly a dozen safety violations. In 2016, it was fined more than $40,000. In 2017, two employees were forced to undergo amputations. In 2019, the plant was fined $3,750. Given this history, union officials are suspicious of the how well safety guidelines were being followed and indicated nitrogen lines are normally checked regularly in plants to ensure the seals on pressurized lines are not leaking. Otherwise, it could be a recipe for disaster.
“When it evaporates, the resulting nitrogen gas can fill a much larger space and can rapidly displace air and the oxygen essential to life, leading to an asphyxiation hazard,” said Rick L. Danheiser, a professor of chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
“Foundation Food Group takes workplace safety very seriously and works constantly to adopt and implement the most effective safety programs available to the industry,” Ancrum said. “Until this investigation is completed, we cannot say with confidence precisely how this accident occurred.”
“If it turns out that the plant was cutting corners to save costs, the company should be prosecuted, said Mark Lauritsen,” the director of food processing, packing, and manufacturing at the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union. “This should never ever, ever happen, given how dangerous the chemical is.”