Fines appealed after nitrogen kills 6 at Georgia plant

Three of four companies are appealing federal workplace safety fines following a January liquid nitrogen leak that killed six workers at a Georgia poultry processing plant.

The U.S. Department of Labor says plant owner Foundation Food Group is contesting citations proposed in July, as well as Packers Sanitation Services Ltd., which provided cleaning services, and FS Group Inc. which helped build the freezer line that malfunctioned.

The Labor Department says the American branch of German company Messer, which made the freezer system, made an informal settlement with the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Aug. 13. No further details were immediately released.

OSHA announced almost $1 million in fines against the four companies, saying the deaths were preventable.

A new freezing line malfunctioned Jan. 28, releasing a cloud of liquid nitrogen vapor. Workers tried to flee, but found some exits blocked or obstructed, investigations have found.

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Foundation Food Group owns the plant in Gainesville, northeast of Atlanta. It was cited for 26 violations with a proposed fine of $595,474. Packers Sanitation Services Ltd. was cited for 19 violations with a proposed fine of $286,720. FS Group was cited for eight violations with a proposed fine of $42,325.

Messer was initially cited for six violations and faced a proposed fine of $74,118. It’s unclear how much it paid.

Messer spokesperson Amy Ficon told The Times of Gainesville that the company will not contest four citations "related to Messer employee safety at the site during service calls in the days before the incident."

"The agreement also confirms Messer’s ongoing commitment to emphasizing to its customers the importance of installing appropriate oxygen monitoring equipment and adequate ventilation in customer facilities that use liquid nitrogen," Ficon wrote in an email. "Messer continues to cooperate fully with all investigators, including OSHA and (the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board). Messer is committed to the shared goal of finding the causes of this incident and doing its part to prevent such an incident from ever happening again."

Families of a number of dead workers are suing Messer and a Messer employee who serviced the system.

The contested citations will ultimately be decided by the Occupational Safety and Health Review Commission.

Packers Sanitation Services Inc. Vice President of Marketing Gina Swenson said the company is contesting all of the citations because its employees were not on site and not involved in operation or maintenance of the nitrogen freezer line.

Foundation Food Group did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

RELATED: Officials release details on events leading up to deadly Gainesville plant lea

Six workers suffocated from liquid nitrogen exposure including 45-year-old Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera of Gainesville; 35-year-old Corey Alan Murphy of Clermont; 28-year-old Nelly Perez-Rafael of Gainesville; 41-year-old Saulo Suarez-Bernal of Dawsonville; 38-year-old Victor Vellez of Gainesville; and 28-year-old Edgar Vera-Garcia of Gainesville. OSHA said 12 other employees were injured. Some were hospitalized.

The plant takes chicken slaughtered elsewhere and cooks patties and nuggets, freezing them for shipment.

Three workers were trying to repair the freezer when nitrogen filled the room, which is at a lower level than adjacent areas, making it unlikely the heavier-than-air gas would disperse. Those three died, as did three others who tried to rescue them.

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