Atlanta, Jan 28 (efe-epa).- At least six people died and several more are in critical condition after a liquid nitrogen leak at a food processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia, local authorities reported Thursday.
Gainesville police said that about a dozen people had been transported to local hospitals, including several firefighters, after the incident Thursday morning at the Foundation Food Group chicken processing plant.
Hall County Fire Department Division Chief Zach Brackett told reporters that firefighters responded to the report of the leak after 10 am and “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.”
The fire chief said that his personnel, along with the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the state fire marshal were probing the incident.
Chicken processing plants and other similar facilities use extensive refrigeration systems that are sometimes cooled with liquid nitrogen.
“It was a leak of unknown cause … in the system here,” Brackett said, adding “We still have a lot of information we’re trying to gather from the scene.”
Authorities said that more than 100 plant workers were transported to a nearby church to be evaluated and treated by health responders.
According to initial reports, five people died inside the plant and another succumbed at a local hospital.
Gainesville is known as the US “chicken capital” due to the many poultry farms and processing plants in the area, most of which employ Hispanic workers. Georgia has the largest chicken processing industry of any US state.
Local police said that they had cordoned off the area near the plant, where the Lyman Hall Elementary School is located, and had ordered students and teachers to remain inside the school buildings as a precaution.
Hall County school authorities said on Facebook, however, that the leak had been contained and no larger amount of nitrogen had been detected in the local air.
The plant was known as Prime Pak Foods until earlier this month, when it was acquired by Foundation Food Group, a privately held company.
Foundation Food Group’s vice president for human resources, Nicholas Ancrum, said the leak was a tragic accident, adding that preliminary information indicates that a liquid nitrogen line ruptured inside the plant.
Nitrogen is an odorless gas that makes up 78 percent of the Earth’s atmosphere – air is only 21 percent oxygen – but in enclosed spaces when nitrogen replaces oxygen it can cause suffocation.
At least 14 US workers died from asphyxiation caused by nitrogen leaks in a dozen workplace accidents between 2012 and 2020, according to OSHA.