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Candles and flowers left along Centennial Drive near Foundation Food Group on Friday Jan. 29. Photo: Scott Rogers/AP News
Candles and flowers left along Centennial Drive near Foundation Food Group on Friday Jan. 29. Photo: Scott Rogers/AP News

The Gainesville chicken plant tragedy in Georgia is another example of how undocumented essential workers deserve better

A GoFundMe has been set up to support the legal and medical expenses of the families whose members died after the leak of nitrogen gas.

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A liquid nitrogen leak at the Prime Pak Foods poultry plant  in Gainesville, Georgia on Thursday Jan. 28, left six people dead and sent 11 others to the hospital. A spokesperson for the Northeast Georgia health system said that five people died on site, and another died after being taken to the hospital. 

Zach Brackett, the Hall County Fire Department division chief, said that when firefighters arrived at the plant around 10 a.m., they found workers “milling around” outside, some with injuries. 

At least four firefighters also complained of respiratory issues and were taken to the Gainesville hospital. 

Earlier this month, Prime Pak Foods merged into Foundation Food Group, a company that processes raw chicken into products like chicken tenders and individual cuts for restaurants and food service operations. 

The vice-president for human resources of the Foundation Food Group, Nicholas Ancrum, labeled the gas leak a “tragic accident” and explained that the likely cause was a nitrogen line rupturing within the facility. 

Poultry plants depend on refrigeration systems that often include liquid nitrogen. 

When liquid nitrogen gets released into the air, it vaporizes into an odorless gas and pushes away oxygen, making it very deadly within enclosed spaces, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.

Sheriff’s deputies, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the state fire marshal are investigating the deaths and cause of the leak, but Hall County Sheriff, Gerald Couch, says that it will be a lengthy process. 

Online records show that Prime Pak Foods has been cited by OSHA for safety violations four times in the past 10 years. The most serious of these citations was in September 2015, when 28 violations were initially cited, including failure to ensure that machines were properly safeguarded to prevent injuries. In 2017, there were two citations involving employees who had fingers amputated by machinery. 

Gainesville is the center of the poultry industry in Georgia, with thousands of employees working for multiple processing plants. Much of the workforce, like many in meat processing plants nationwide, is Latino. 

After the fatal leak, coalition groups working with the families of victims claim that employees reported safety concerns just one day before it transpired. 

CBS46, in their attempts to learn more about these claims, were informed by OSHA that they received no such notifications about the site on the day before the accident. The Hall County Sheriff’s office wrote in an email that they also couldn’t confirm this, and that they are only investigating the deaths, not prior complaints. 

The desperate 911 calls released on Friday, Jan. 29, showed the tragedy unfolding in mere seconds. 

 

 

Witnesses reported that some victims were already unconscious, while others were barely hanging onto their breath. These revelations tormented the six families impacted by the accident. 

A local organizer Maria del Rosario Palacios, set up a GoFundMe to support the medical, legal and family expenses of the impacted families. Williams Lozano of the Mexican Consulate Office in Atlanta, confirmed to CBS46 that they are working with three families of victims. 

“It’s really difficult for them to handle, many times families are separated. Some of them are in Mexico — their parents are in Mexico and haven’t seen their daughter or son for years and now this happens,” Lozano said. 

Many of the workers are undocumented, there’s a fear of retaliation or being referred to immigration. To combat this, Georgia communications specialist, Paul Glaze, is working with the League of United Latin American Citizens to make sure plant workers know their rights. 

As stated on the GoFundMe page, these meat processing plants in Gainesville heavily rely on immigrant labor but few protections or support systems exist for these vulnerable community members. These essential workers often work in hazardous conditions to put food on all of our tables. 

Lozano feels that this tragedy should not have happened, and likely could have been prevented. “It was an accident but there's a difference between a leak and someone failing,” he said.

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