Feds: Gainesville poultry plant at fault for 6 deaths; $1M in fines issued

Six people were killed at the Foundation Food Group in Gainesville.
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Six people were killed at the Foundation Food Group in Gainesville.

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC

The employees of a Gainesville poultry plant hadn’t been trained on the deadly effects of exposure to liquid nitrogen, federal investigators said Friday. So when the odorless gas leaked inside the plant’s refrigeration system in January, there were no safety measures in place.

Six people died and a dozen others were injured in the Jan. 28 incident at Foundation Food Group, Inc., located in the heart of Georgia’s dominant poultry industry. But all of the deaths could have been prevented, the U.S. Department of Labor said.

The findings were released just weeks after the Occupational Safety and Health Administration fought in federal court to have inspectors allowed inside the plant.

OSHA cited four companies investigators believe are responsible for the deaths with 59 violations totaling nearly $1 million, U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh announced Friday. The Foundation Food Group faces $595,474 in penalties.

The companies have 15 business days from receipt of their citations and penalties to comply, request an informal conference with OSHA’s area director, or contest the findings before the independent commission.

ExploreOSHA goes to court to gain access to poultry plant where six died

“Six people’s deaths, and injuries suffered by at least a dozen others, were entirely avoidable,” Walsh said in an emailed statement. “The Department of Labor is dedicated to upholding the law and using everything in our power to get justice for the workers’ families. The bottom line is no one should leave for work wondering if they’ll return home at the end of the day, and the Department of Labor is committed to holding bad actors accountable.”

Meanwhile, the plant is still operating because OSHA is not authorized to close the business, the agency said Friday. The plant did not immediately respond Friday to comment about the findings.

By 7 a.m. Jan. 28, employees at the plant realized there was a problem, according to Jim Frederick, acting assistant secretary of labor for OSHA. Three maintenance workers, attempting to troubleshoot the leak, were the first killed. Two others also died at the plant and a sixth person died at the hospital, investigators have said.

The victims were identified as Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45, of Gainesville; Corey Alan Murphy, 35, of Clermont; Nelly Perez-Rafael, 28, of Gainesville; Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41, of Dawsonville; Victor Vellez, 38, of Gainesville; and Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28, of Gainesville.

The federal investigation into the incident began the same day as the explosion and OHSA inspectors entered the plant. But later they were turned away, the agency said. And on April 22, the plant management shut down the processing line, preventing them from gathering information, according to a June court filing.

ExploreA deadly day at a Georgia poultry plant, an aching aftermath
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Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera (from left), Nelly Perez-Rafael, Saulo Suarez-Bernal, Corey Alan Murphy and Edgar Vera-Garcia were killed at the plant along with Victor Vellez. (Credits: All photos from Memorial Park Funeral Homes, except for Corey Alan Murphy from Norris-New Funeral Home and Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera from family).

Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera (from left), Nelly Perez-Rafael, Saulo Suarez-Bernal, Corey Alan Murphy and Edgar Vera-Garcia were killed at the plant along with Victor Vellez. (Credits: All photos from Memorial Park Funeral Homes, except for Corey Alan Murphy from Norris-New Funeral Home and Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera from family).
caption arrowCaption
Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera (from left), Nelly Perez-Rafael, Saulo Suarez-Bernal, Corey Alan Murphy and Edgar Vera-Garcia were killed at the plant along with Victor Vellez. (Credits: All photos from Memorial Park Funeral Homes, except for Corey Alan Murphy from Norris-New Funeral Home and Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera from family).

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

On Friday, OSHA said investigators had a difficult time reaching some of the plant’s workers who are undocumented immigrants, who feared retaliation or deportation for cooperating.

According to the latest OSHA findings, the six employees were killed because the plant and other companies involved in the operations failed to implement any of the safety procedures necessary to prevent the nitrogen leak. Employees didn’t have the knowledge nor equipment in place that could have saved their lives, OSHA said.

In addition to Foundation Food Group, three other companies ― Messer LLC of Bridgewater, New Jersey; Packers Sanitation Services Inc. Ltd. of Kieler, Wisconsin; and FS Group Inc. of Albertville, Alabama ― were cited and fined by OSHA.

Messer, the company that delivered the industrial gas to the plant, faces $74,118 in penalties for failing to have emergency “lockout” procedures in place.

Packers Sanitation Services, which provided cleaning and sanitation services at the facility, was fined $286,720 and FS Group Inc., which manufactures equipment and provides mechanical servicing, faces $42,325 in penalties. Both were cited for failing to train workers on the hazards of liquid nitrogen. Packers was also cited for not ensuring emergency eyewashes were available and unobstructed, similar to citations the company received in 2017 and 2018.

“This horrible tragedy could have been prevented had the employers taken the time to use ― and teach their workers the importance of ― safety precautions,” Kurt Petermeyer, OSHA regional administrator in Atlanta, said in an emailed statement. “Instead, six workers died as a result of their employers’ failure to follow necessary procedures and to comply with required safety and health standards. We hope other industry employers learn from this terrible incident and comply with safety and health requirements to prevent similar incidents.”

— Staff writer Michael E. Kanell contributed to this article.