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Conveyor System Malfunction Eyed in Deadly Georgia Chicken Plant Accident


Federal investigators believe a problem with the conveyer belt system may have triggered a deadly nitrogen leak that tragically killed 6 workers at a Gainesville, Georgia chicken processing plant late last month.

Gainesville Poultry Plant Investigators Note “Unresolved Operational Issues”

“Unresolved operational issues” with the conveyer “appear to have resulted in the accidental release of liquid nitrogen in the flash freezing bath,” the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said in an update issued on Sunday evening.

The January 28th accident at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, about 55 miles outside of Atlanta, occurred shortly after 10:00 a.m. when a pipeline carrying liquid nitrogen ruptured on production line four. Line four is used to season, cook, freeze, and package chicken. The nitrogen pipeline was apparently installed just weeks before the fatal incident.

The release forced 130 workers to evacuate the plant through a cloud of toxic nitrogen vapor. Five of those workers died inside the plant, and a sixth died later that day in the hospital.

Eleven other workers and two firefighters were treated at the hospital for respiratory problems.

Production Line Where Nitrogen Pipeline Ruptured Had Been Shut Down Earlier

According to the Chemical Safety Board’s latest update, production line four had been shut down earlier that morning due to operational issues involving the conveyor system. Foundation Food Group maintenance personnel reported the computerized measuring system indicated a low liquid level in the immersion bath used to flash freeze the chicken products.

The Chemical Safety Board’s probe is ongoing, and it could be several years before investigators release a final report. While the Board can issue recommendations to prevent similar incidents in the future, it has no power to levy fines or take other enforcement actions after major plant accidents or explosions.

Gainesville is Hub of Georgia’s Poultry Industry

Gainesville is the hub of Georgia’s massive poultry processing industry. Foundation Food Group was formed on January 1st, after the plant’s previous owner, Prime-Pak Foods, merged with Victory Processing.

Nationwide, poultry processing is known for poor working conditions, low wages, and a relatively high rate of severe injury. Most of those employed by the industry are unskilled, and many are undocumented. Those killed by last month’s deadly nitrogen leak ranged in age from 28 to 45.  Five of the six were Mexican nationals.

In 2015, the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration fined the same Gainesville plant more than $100,000 in connection with a dozen workplace safety violations. The plant was hit with another $40,000 in penalties for additional violations in 2016.

The following year, two plant workers were forced to undergo amputations after their hands became stuck in a food mixer. The facility was fined $3,750 in 2019.

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