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One company settles, three appeal OSHA citations for fatal nitrogen leak at Foundation Food Group
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Hall County Firefighters gather outside Friday, Jan. 29, 2021, at Foundation Food Group before entering a door near a loading dock. A day earlier six people were killed following a liquid nitrogen leak at the plant. - photo by Scott Rogers

Three companies cited by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration in July for the nitrogen leak that caused six deaths at Foundation Food Group are appealing the citations, while one has reached an informal settlement agreement.

The leak at the Gainesville plant on Jan. 28 sent a total of 12 people to the hospital. 

Three Foundation Food Group maintenance workers entered the freezer room “without precautions – never trained on the deadly effects of nitrogen exposure – and were overcome immediately,” according to OSHA. “Other workers entered the room and were also overcome,” according to OSHA. “The three maintenance workers and two other workers died immediately, a sixth died on the way to the hospital. At least a dozen other injured workers needed hospital care.”

OSHA previously announced 59 alleged violations and nearly $1 million in possible penalties against Foundation Food Group, Messer LLC, Packers Sanitation Services Inc. and FS Group Inc.

OSHA cited Foundation Food Group with 26 violations that could lead to $595,474 in penalties.

OSHA alleged that Foundation Food Group and Messer “failed to implement any of the safety procedures necessary to prevent the nitrogen leak, or to equip workers responding to it with the knowledge and equipment that could have saved their lives.”

FS Group faces $42,325 in potential penalties for failure to train workers on the physical and health hazards of liquid nitrogen, according to OSHA. 

Packers Sanitation Services faces 17 serious and two repeat violations that could result in $286,720 in penalties.

According to OSHA, a serious violation is defined as a “workplace hazard (that) could cause an accident or illness that would most likely result in death or serious physical harm, unless the employer did not know or could not have known of the violation.”

Messer, the chemical company facing wrongful death lawsuits in Gwinnett County, reached an informal settlement agreement. Neither OSHA nor Messer said how much money, if any, was paid.

Under the agreement, Messer spokeswoman Amy Ficon said the company will not contest the four citations “related to Messer employee safety at the site during service calls in the days before the incident.”  

“The agreement also confirms Messer’s ongoing commitment to emphasizing to its customers the importance of installing appropriate oxygen monitoring equipment and adequate ventilation in customer facilities that use liquid nitrogen,” Ficon wrote in an email. “Messer continues to cooperate fully with all investigators, including OSHA and (the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board).  Messer is committed to the shared goal of finding the causes of this incident and doing its part to prevent such an incident from ever happening again.”

Packers Sanitation Services Inc. Vice President of Marketing Gina Swenson said the company is contesting all of the citations.

“Our employees were not onsite and were in no way involved with this tragic incident,” Swenson wrote in an email. “We are also not involved in the operation or mechanical maintenance of this equipment.”

Foundation Food Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment but had previously told The Times of its intent to challenge the findings.

The companies will contest the citations with the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission, which is an independent agency outside of OSHA and the Department of Labor.

The review commission has procedures in place to conduct hearings, receive evidence and have administrative law judges render decisions.

A representative from FS Group declined to comment.

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