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As Foundation Food Group plant clears some inspections, some workers concerned about returning to site of deadly nitrogen leak
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Employees gather outside of the Foundation Food Group site at Memorial Drive and Centennial Drive in Gainesville following a liquid nitrogen leak that killed six people. School buses were brought in to take employees away from the site. - photo by Scott Rogers

As investigators have released the majority of the Foundation Food Group plant back to the company, advocates in the community say workers are concerned about returning to the workplace that saw six deaths and 12 total people hospitalized.

The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board told The Times Tuesday, Feb. 16 it had released the majority of the facility which experienced a liquid nitrogen leak Jan. 28.

“There is one area which the (chemical safety board) has asked the company to preserve,” according to the chemical safety board. “This area is known as the exclusion zone and the company is able to run the operation without impacting this part of the facility. It is now up to the company to determine their start-up plans.”

The chemical safety board said the exclusion zone is a single room that houses a two-stage nitrogen freezer.

“If you were to be working at an office or a warehouse or anywhere where your coworkers died in front of you, it’s completely understandable that even you or me would have reservations about returning to work,” said Elliot Lepe, outreach paralegal with Southern Poverty Law Center.

Lepe said the situation has created a catch-22 for the workers, who are balancing the need for a reliable income with concerns about returning to a safe workplace where six coworkers died.

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A photo from inside the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville shows exits blocked. (Photo from Hall County Fire Marshal's Office reports)

building inspection Feb. 1 by the Hall County Fire Marshal’s Office found several issues including exit signs needing repair as well as multiple exit doors and pathways blocked by machinery and product.

Hall County Fire Services Division Chief Zach Brackett said the follow-up inspection was completed Feb. 11 by the fire marshal’s office, and all cited issues were resolved.

Brackett said “there are no prohibitions to operations at Foundation Food Group from Hall County Fire Services,” though the agency could not speak for other investigatory agencies.

The Times reached out to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to see if the agency’s inspections have progressed to the point where the company could resume operations. A spokesman said the investigation is still ongoing.

“As of today, the plant has not resumed operations,” according to a statement provided by   Foundation Food Group Vice President of Human Resources Nick Ancrum. “Foundation Food Group continues to work with all regulatory authorities and will resume operations only after all appropriate authorities have consented that it is safe to do so. The portion of the line where the incident occurred will remain shut down and locked out for the foreseeable future. Foundation Food Group will be in direct contact with employees regarding return to work dates.”

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Devin Pandy joins about 20 protesters Monday, Feb. 15, 2021, at Westside Plaza outside of the Gainesville Ballroom where Governor Brian Kemp participates in a discussion on COVID-19 vaccinations in the area Latino community. The group protested the working conditions at the Foundation Food Group where six employees were killed in the plant's Jan. 28 nitrogen leak. - photo by Scott Rogers

A group of about 20 cars circled the plant Monday, Feb. 15, in what was described as a “solidarity caravan” for the workers.

“The reason why this was planned … was to make our presence be known at the poultry plant and show the workers that we stand with them, that we care and that the community has their backs,” said Stephanie Lopez-Burgos, who spoke through a loudspeaker when the caravan reached Atlanta Highway.

Lopez-Burgos said she has spoken with workers and families about the plant potentially reopening, and the No. 1 concern has been about safety.

Northeast Georgia Health System officials said the last of the 12 people hospitalized was discharged Tuesday and sent home.

“It’s not only about the physical health,” Lopez-Burgos said. “There’s a big thing here at play which is mental health.”