A liquid nitrogen leak at a poultry plant northeast of Atlanta killed six workers and sent 11 more to the hospital Thursday. At least three of the people hospitalized are in critical condition, officials said.
Local, state, and federal police and health and safety investigators are still looking for what may have caused the leak at the Gainesville, Ga., Foundation Food Group plant. They cautioned Thursday it may be some time before they find out what happened.
"It will be a lengthy process," Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch told reporters.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board is deploying a team of investigators and the board's CEO and chairman, Katherine A. Lemos, to the scene Friday.
Jameel Fareed, one of roughly 130 employees evacuated from the plant Thursday morning, told Atlanta's Channel 2 Action News that the nitrogen leak set off chaos in the plant.
"First we just thought there was something wrong with the freezer, then they started saying get out," Fareed said. "I just saw the fog and when I couldn't see down the steps, I turned around. But I didn't feel anything."
Another worker said colleagues started pushing each other to get out.
Five of the workers were found dead at the plant. A sixth person was transferred to the Northeast Georgia Medical Center in Gainesville and died there. Mexico's Foreign Relations Department said that two of the six people who died were Mexican citizens.
"Those lost today include maintenance, supervisory, and management team members," said Foundation Food Group Vice President for Human Resources Nicholas Ancrum. "Every team member is equally important to us."
A silent killer
Colorless, odorless, and extremely cold, liquid nitrogen can cause serious damage and quick death with no warning.
The gas can cause extensive tissue damage or burns. Inhaling large amounts of nitrogen can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting, loss of consciousness, and death.
Poultry plants use liquid nitrogen for refrigeration systems. Gainesville, with its large number of poultry processing plants, is called the "Poultry Capital of the World."
From January 2011 until this month, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found several violations at the Gainesville plant, which was previously called Prime-Pak Foods, Inc. According to records reviewed by NPR, the company last received an infraction last year for violations of eye and face protection requirements. Further details on that case weren't provided.
In 2015, OSHA fined the company for 12 violations, which included issues related to machinery safeguards, according to those records. In two separate incidents from 2017, two employees suffered finger amputations after getting their hands stuck in equipment. No other violations involved issues with refrigeration or gas leaks of any kind.
The meat packing and poultry industry in the U.S. is dominated by immigrants who are largely Latino.
The work is physical and can be dangerous. Workers move quickly to cut down meat products, putting them at risk for serious knife cuts, and heavy machinery can cause amputations and other serious injuries.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, meat packing workers are at a particular risk of exposure because they work almost shoulder to shoulder to their colleagues.
A massive COVID-19 outbreak at the Smithfield Foods plant in Sioux Falls, South Dakota killed four workers and infected more than 900 other employees.
At a Tyson Foods chicken processing facility in Wilkes County, N.C. more than 570 workers tested positive for the coronavirus last year.