A liquid nitrogen leak at a northeast Georgia poultry plant killed six people Thursday and hospitalized 11 others in an incident officials called "devastating" and a "tragedy."
At least three of those injured at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville were reported in critical condition.
Poultry plants rely on refrigeration systems that can include liquid nitrogen. Firefighters, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the state fire marshal were investigating the cause of the leak.
"I would definitely ask everyone to keep the families in your prayers," Hall County Sheriff Gerald Couch said during a press conference. "A lot of these folks that came into work today didn't have any idea of what would happen, nor did their families. They’re not in a profession that you would expect something like this to happen, but here we are."
He added: "It’ll take quite some time to determine the cause."
Foundation Food Group Vice President for Human Resources Nicholas Ancrum called the leak a tragic accident and said early indications are that a nitrogen line ruptured in the facility.
The plant was known as Prime Pak Foods until January, when it merged into Foundation Food Group, a company that takes raw chicken and processes it into products like chicken fingers and individual chicken cuts for restaurants and food service operations.
"Those lost today include maintenance, supervisory and management team members," Ancrum said in a statement. "Every team member is equally important to us and our hearts go out to their families and communities who have suffered such a devastating loss."
Ancrum added 130 employees were evacuated from the plant and Foundation Food Group is cooperating with the investigation into the leak.
When leaked into the air, liquid nitrogen vaporizes into an odorless gas that’s capable of displacing oxygen. That means leaks in enclosed spaces can become deadly by pushing away breathable air, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
Workers who had fled the plant were gathered outside when firefighters responded to the leak Thursday morning, Hall County Fire Department Division Chief Zach Brackett said.
“Once the units arrived, they found a large contingent of employees that had evacuated, along with multiple victims that were in that crowd that were also experiencing medical emergencies around the facility," Brackett told reporters in a televised news briefing.
Sean Couch, a spokesman for Northeast Georgia Health system, said 12 people were transported to a local hospital – one died in the emergency room.
He didn't know the extent of the injuries to the other people at the hospital, but told reporters three were treated and released, three are in critical condition and five are in fair condition. He said the injuries were "respiratory in nature."
Five people died at the poultry plant, Brackett said.
At least four firefighters were injured and taken to the hospital with what Brackett described as respiratory complaints. Brackett said there were no fatalities among the fire service and one firefighter is still at the hospital and is expected to remain there overnight. He added the firefighter is "doing well."
Gainesville is the center of Georgia’s poultry industry – the nation’s largest – and has thousands of employees working in multiple processing plants.
The Foundation Foods Group plant is a non-union plant, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, which represents more than 250,000 meatpacking and food processing workers.
UFCW International Vice President Mark Lauritsen called Thursday's incident "an unspeakable tragedy, but a preventable one."
"Refrigerants are one of the most common dangers faced in these facilities, and in a union plant our representatives, stewards, safety captains and industrial engineers work every day with employers on process safety management to reduce risk and keep workers safe," he said in a statement.
“In non-union facilities, unfortunately, workers are left at the mercy of their employer and rely on an understaffed and underfunded safety agency for help. They deserve the protection of a union at work too.”
Fourteen American workers died from asphyxiation linked to nitrogen in 12 workplace accidents recorded between 2012 and 2020, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration.
Contributing: The Associated Press.