Foundation Food Group faces more than $500,000 in potential fines related to a nitrogen leak that killed six people, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration said Friday, calling the deaths “entirely avoidable.”
OSHA on July 23 announced alleged violations against the Gainesville poultry processor and three other companies in the Jan. 28 incident. Six people were killed and 12 were hospitalized after the leak at the Memorial Park Drive plant.
A timeline of the case
Catch up on previous coverage of this incident and the investigation into what happened.
“Six people’s deaths, and injuries suffered by at least a dozen others, were entirely avoidable,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh in a news release.
OSHA announced the alleged violations after its nearly six-month investigation into the leak, and the agency has cited Foundation Food Group, Messer LLC, Packers Sanitation Services Inc., and FS Group Inc. The 59 alleged violations could lead to close to $1 million total in penalties.
OSHA cited Foundation Food Group with 26 alleged violations that could lead to $595,474 in penalties.
According to information released by OSHA, a freezer at the Gainesville plant malfunctioned, releasing liquid nitrogen into the plant’s air and displacing the oxygen.
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 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.”
What Foundation Food Group and attorneys think went wrong
In a statement late Friday, Foundation Food Group claimed that OSHA issued citations that “unfortunately do not directly address the cause of the liquid nitrogen leak.”
“I personally know the loss all too well having lost my stepson that day,” said Foundation Food Group senior vice president of operations BJ Svajgl. “I know everyone at FFG mourns the loss we all suffered that day and offers prayers to friends, family and the community as we continue to heal.”
As noted in six separate ongoing wrongful death lawsuits filed in Gwinnett County, Foundation Food Group leased its freezer from Messer LLC.
“At the time of the accident, Messer was still on-site making adjustments to the freezer and had not turned the freezer over to FFG for full operation,” Foundation Food Group said in a statement.
Foundation Food Group said a bubbler tube, which measures the level of liquid nitrogen in the immersion freezer, was “bent such that it could not properly measure the level of liquid nitrogen or shut off the supply if the level was too high.”
“There remains insufficient evidence to know how the tube was bent or why the drawings show the tube mounted with two mounts while only one was present,” Foundation Food Group said in a statement. “Similarly, the freezer’s design did not protect the tube in any way to ensure it would not be bent or otherwise damaged despite the tube being the sole safety device to prevent a catastrophic overflow of liquid nitrogen. OSHA’s investigation, conclusions and citations do nothing to address this nor would any of these prevent the same accident from occurring.”
Matt Cook, one of the attorneys working on the wrongful death lawsuits, said he and fellow attorneys have made substantial progress in the cases and also noted the missing mount for the bubbler tube. Cook said the bubbler tube, a thin piece of metal which can bend when not supported, is supposed to shut off the nitrogen when it reaches a certain level inside the tank.
“Interestingly, leading up to the incident, we have now been able to obtain the download data from the control module on the freezer, and that data shows there were multiple alarms recorded in the data of high levels of nitrogen inside the tank in the days leading up to it,” Cook said.
Foundation Food Group and its attorneys claimed OSHA has not issued a citation relating to the bent tube. The company also said it will challenge the aspects of these citations that it believes to be “unjustified and unsupported by the facts.”
Other companies respond to the citations
Messer, the chemical company responsible for the industrial gas, was cited by OSHA on six violations totalling $74,118 in penalties, while the cleaning and sanitation provider, Packers Sanitation Services, faces 17 serious and two repeat violations that could result in $286,720 in penalties.
Messer spokeswoman Amy Ficon said the company was informed Friday of the citations.
“Our hearts go out to the families of the deceased, and we express our sincere condolences,” Ficon wrote in an email. “Our thoughts are with all who have been affected by this tragedy. We understand the heartbreaking loss experienced by the families of the deceased. Shortly after the incident, we extended an offer of support through the lawyers of the families to address their immediate financial needs.”
Ficon said Messer has cooperated with OSHA and the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board but declined further comment on the citations or the ongoing lawsuits.
“When installing cryogenic freezer equipment, Messer works with its customers on how to safely and properly operate and maintain the equipment, as well as how to safely and properly prepare the equipment for sanitation,” Ficon said. “Although its customers are responsible for operating and maintaining cryogenic freezer equipment after installation, Messer remains available to provide technical support as requested.”
FS Group faces $42,325 in potential penalties for allegedly not training workers on the physical and health hazards of liquid nitrogen.
A representative from FS Group who answered a call from The Times said there was no one there today who could comment on the alleged violations raised by OSHA.
“Our employees were not onsite and were no way involved with this tragic incident,” said Packers Sanitation Service senior director of marketing Gina Swenson in a statement. “We are also not involved in the operation or mechanical maintenance of this equipment. While we cooperated with OSHA during the review, we fundamentally disagree with these citations and plan to contest them.”
All four companies have 15 business days to respond to the citations, either by complying or contesting them.