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Poultry co, others hit with $1 mln OSHA fines over worker deaths

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Workers package chicken at Buckeye Poultry in Greenwich, Ohio, U.S., May 13, 2020. REUTERS/Dane Rhys

  • Exposure to liquid nitrogen killed six workers
  • Poultry company had not filled vacant safety manager position
  • Labor sec Walsh called on Congress to increase penalties

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(Reuters) - The Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Friday said it had levied nearly $1 million in fines on poultry processor Foundation Food Group Inc (FFG) and three contractors after six workers at a Georgia plant died from exposure to liquid nitrogen earlier this year.

OSHA officials said the January deaths, which stemmed from a freezer malfunction, were preventable. The employees at the Gainesville, Georgia, plant were not trained on the deadly effects of nitrogen exposure, and FFG failed to fill a vacant safety manager post for more than 18 months, the agency said.

OSHA levied about $595,000 in fines on FFG for 26 violations, including six willful violations for exposing workers to thermal injuries and suffocation hazards.

A representative of Georgia-based FFG did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Three contractors, including the company that serviced the freezer that leaked the nitrogen gas and a sanitation firm, were hit with about $400,000 in fines for 31 violations including failing to train workers and obstructing paths of egress, OSHA said.

Currently, the maximum fine for violating OSHA standards is $13,653 per violation. Penalties can be up to 10 times higher for willful violations.

Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh during a call with reporters said the $1 million in fines is relatively large for an OSHA case, but called on Congress to increase the maximum penalties for workplace safety violations.

"We've seen too many companies cutting corners on safety and writing off OSHA fines as a cost of doing business," Walsh said.

FFG processes raw chicken into products like frozen chicken tenders and individual chicken cuts for restaurants and food service operations. It was known as Prime Pak Foods until the start of the year, when its name was changed under a merger between the two companies.

Nitrogen, typically an inert gas that becomes a liquid when supercooled, is widely used in frozen food processing plants. Liquid nitrogen gas released in a confined space can rapidly displace oxygen in the air and lungs, leading to unconsciousness and lethal asphyxiation.

In addition to the six deaths at the Gainesville plant, 12 people were injured including four firefighters.

Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.

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