ATLANTA (AP) — Problems with the operation of a conveyer belt system that transported chicken for freezing appear to be the cause of a liquid nitrogen release that killed six workers at a Georgia poultry processing plant, federal investigators said.
Chicken traveled down the conveyer before being submerged in a liquid nitrogen bath for flash freezing. “Unresolved operational issues” with the conveyer “appear to have resulted in the accidental release of liquid nitrogen in the flash freezing bath,” the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board said late Sunday in its latest findings about the Jan. 28 release.
Workers reported that a computerized measuring system indicated a low liquid level in the immersion bath, according to the board. The processing line that malfunctioned had been shut down on the morning of the release, the board said.
The release occurred at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville about 50 miles (80 kilometers) northeast of Atlanta. The company said in a statement late Monday that it was “fully cooperating” with investigators.
“We are committed to taking any additional measures necessary to further ensure the safety of our employees,” the company said.
The chemical safety board has previously said the line that failed was used to season, cook, freeze and package chicken, and the nitrogen system had been installed only weeks before.
Investigators have also said they found some tools near the freezer on the line, and it was undergoing “unplanned maintenance.” The investigation is ongoing.
The release forced workers to escape through a fog of vaporizing liquid nitrogen. Eleven other workers and firefighters were taken to the hospital for treatment.
Gainesville is the hub of Georgia’s mammoth poultry industry, which relies on a heavily Latino workforce. Five of the six workers who died were Mexican citizens.
Immigration advocates have called on federal investigators to guarantee that any workers at the plant who are in the country illegally will not be deported if they come forward to share their observations.