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OSHA makes ruling in nitrogen leak that killed 6 at Foundation Food Group
Foundation Food Group
Foundation Food Group has reportedly resumed operations at the plant almost a month since the deadly nitrogen leak. - photo by By Scott Rogers

Foundation Food Group faces more than $500,000 in potential fines related to a Jan. 28 nitrogen leak that killed six people, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced, 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. 

“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 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 that released liquid nitrogen into the plant’s air and displaced 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.”

Foundation Food Group did not immediately respond to requests for comment Friday.

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.”

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.

“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.”

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.”

FS Group faces $42,325 in 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 that could comment on the alleged violations raised by OSHA.

“Our employees were not onsite and were no way involved with this tragic incident,” said All four companies have 15 business days to respond to the citations, either by complying or contesting OSHA’s alleged violations.

 This article originally published in our sister paper the Gainesville Times.