Federal agency goes to court to gain access to poultry plant where six died

Hundreds turn out at a prayer vigil Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, to remember the victims of a deadly incident at the Foundation Food Group poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia. (Photo: Vanessa McCray / Vanessa.McCray@ajc.com)
Hundreds turn out at a prayer vigil Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021, to remember the victims of a deadly incident at the Foundation Food Group poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia. (Photo: Vanessa McCray / Vanessa.McCray@ajc.com)

Credit: Vanessa McCray

Credit: Vanessa McCray

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration is continuing its fight for access to a Gainesville poultry processing plant where six men died, arguing that the court should force the company to allow inspectors in.

Attorneys for the Foundation Food Group plant say there was no probable cause for a warrant granted to OSHA and that the government’s inspection is unnecessary and would be disruptive.

Six workers were asphyxiated and frozen in a January incident at the plant, which involved a leak of liquid nitrogen.

In the immediate aftermath of the accident, OSHA inspectors did enter and inspect the plant. But they suspected that there were additional safety violations they had not investigated, officials said. Inspectors twice came back to the plant, but were turned away.

OSHA obtained the warrant. But when inspectors returned on April 22, the plant management shut down the processing line, preventing them from gathering information, according to the filing.

The next day, the company went to court to argue that the warrant was illegal.

Government lawyers have defended the warrant and say OSHA should be allowed to proceed with its inspection because, if a judge agrees with the company’s argument later, the evidence gathered will be tossed out.

Still, the preemptive attack on the warrant is “part of a recent trend of employers filing such motions, hoping to stop OSHA in its tracks before an administrative hearing even begins,” the agency’s lawyers argued in Monday’s filing. “The public interest lies in favor of OSHA being able to promptly inspect and remedy any violations.”

Foundation Food Group was formed on Jan. 1 after a merger between Prime Pak Foods and Victory Processing, according to state business records. On Wednesday, the company issued a statement saying, “We are currently in litigation against OSHA and do not comment about issues arising in litigation.”

The Gainesville plant has bumped up against OSHA before. The owners agreed to payments of more than $40,000 in 2017 for two separate incidents, both involving employees losing fingers, according to OSHA records. In 2019, the facility paid $3,750 for violations. In March, federal officials investigated an ammonia leak at the plant.

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