The Occupational Safety and Health Administration has issued nearly $1 million in fines against a group of companies following the deaths of six poultry workers in Georgia in January.
The workers at Foundation Food Group died after a liquid nitrogen leak at their plant in Gainesville. In announcing the fines, Labor Secretary Marty Walsh said Friday that the company was putting “profits over safety” and had ignored basic responsibilities that could have prevented the leak.
“Six people went to work… and never came home,” Walsh said on a press call. “Make no mistake, this was a very preventable tragedy.”
OSHA cited three other companies for safety failures following an investigation: Messer LLC, which delivered industrial gas to the plant; Packers Sanitation Services LLC, which cleaned the plant; and FS Group, which provided and serviced mechanical equipment there.
In all, OSHA issued 59 citations to the four companies totaling $998,637. Those are initial penalties, however, and the companies can appeal them and try to negotiate lower fines.
Those are significant penalties by OSHA standards because the agency has weak fines by statute. Walsh said the amounts in this case were relatively large but “not enough.” Indeed, the total initial fines amount to just $166,000 for each worker who died.
Walsh called on Congress to increase OSHA fines so that dangerous employers would be put on notice.
“We’ve seen too many companies cutting corners,” he said. “Workers are still dying every day in this country.”
Poultry plants use liquid nitrogen to freeze the chicken they process. It is colorless and odorless, often leaving workers unaware when they’re exposed to it. OSHA says three maintenance workers entered a freezer at the Gainesville plant on Jan. 28 and were “overcome immediately” by the nitrogen. They were followed by other workers.
Five workers, including the three maintenance employees, died right away, while a sixth worker died while headed to the hospital. At least a dozen other workers were hospitalized.
According to OSHA, the maintenance workers who first entered the freezer were not trained in how to handle liquid nitrogen.
Kurt Petermeyer, a regional administrator for OSHA, said on the press call that Foundation Food Group had gone more than a year without a safety director and that the company’s upper management “made no effort” to find other employees who could take on the safety responsibilities created by the vacancy.
The fines against Foundation Food Group include six “willful” citations, a graver category that comes with higher penalties. An employer who committed willful violations either knowingly failed to follow the law or “acted with plain indifference” to workers’ safety.
Foundation Food Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the citations.
OSHA has been investigating an apparent second leak ― this one of ammonia ― that occurred a few weeks after the liquid nitrogen disaster. The leak prompted workers to file a complaint with OSHA. Foundation Food Group tried to block the agency’s investigation of the second leak, prompting a legal fight with OSHA in federal court.
Petermeyer declined to say whether the company was cooperating at his point. But he did note that OSHA has had a hard time tracking down some workers for interviews, likely because many are undocumented and fear getting in trouble.
“We continue to have difficulties in gaining support from the workers because of their fear of retaliation ... or even threats of deportation,” he said.