ATLANTA — Federal workplace safety officials are proposing nearly $1 million in fines against four companies following a January liquid nitrogen leak that killed six workers at a Georgia poultry processing plant.U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh announced citations and fines by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Friday.“Make no mistake, this was a very preventable tragedy,” Walsh told reporters.He said the penalties imposed in the case were “relatively large but that is not enough.” He said many companies simply write off OSHA fines as the “cost of doing business” and called on Congress to increase them.“These employers were putting profit over safety,” Walsh said.Foundation Food Group owns the plant in Gainesville, northeast of Atlanta. It was cited for 26 violations with a proposed fine of $595,474. Packers Sanitation Services Ltd., which provided cleaning services, was cited for 19 violations with a proposed fine of $286,720. Messer LLC, which made the freezer system, was cited for six violations and faces a proposed fine of $74,118. FS Group Inc, which helped build the line, was cited for eight violations with a proposed fine of $42,325.OSHA fines and citations are often lowered following appeals. Companies being penalized have 15 days to appeal. Foundation Food contested a $54,000 fine issued in June after an employee on another line suffered an amputation in December.Foundation Food didn’t reply to a phone call and emails seeking comment.Six workers suffocated from liquid nitrogen exposure including 45-year-old Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera of Gainesville; 35-year-old Corey Alan Murphy of Clermont; 28-year-old Nelly Perez-Rafael of Gainesville; 41-year-old Saulo Suarez-Bernal of Dawsonville; 38-year-old Victor Vellez of Gainesville; and 28-year-old Edgar Vera-Garcia of Gainesville. OSHA said 12 other employees were injured. Some were hospitalized.The plant takes chicken slaughtered elsewhere and cooks patties and nuggets, freezing them for shipment.A new freezing line malfunctioned Jan. 28, releasing a cloud of liquid nitrogen vapor. Workers tried to flee, but found some exits blocked or obstructed, investigations have found.The company has said in court papers that the only safety device on the freezer was damaged and there was no backup system to prevent a “catastrophic” overflow.Workers reported that a computerized measuring system indicated a low liquid level in the immersion bath, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board. Three workers were trying to repair the freezer when nitrogen filled the room, which is at a lower level than adjacent areas, making it unlikely the heavier-than-air gas would disperse. Those three died, as did three others who tried to rescue them.OSHA Atlanta Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer said Foundation Food and the other companies “failed to implement any of the safety procedures necessary to prevent the nitrogen leak and to equip workers responding to it with the knowledge and equipment that could have saved their lives.”Petermeyer also said Foundation Food managers showed “indifference” to safety regulations by leaving a safety manager position unfilled from April 2019 until December 2020 and not assigning anyone else to those duties.Shelly Anand, a lawyer for Atlanta-based immigrant rights nonprofit Sur Legal Collaborative, said OSHA can’t refer citations issued Thursday for federal criminal prosecution.“I honestly think the agency did everything that they could, statutorily, to issue penalties or consequences to the company,” Anand said.OSHA officials said Friday that they have issued multiple subpoenas for documents and testimony to compel Foundation Food Group’s cooperation. The company is fighting in federal court an attempt by OSHA to serve a warrant related to an ammonia odor reported in March and a complaint of imminent danger filed by worker advocates. Foundation Food argues OSHA doesn’t have probable cause to inspect just because workers said they smelled ammonia. A recommendation to allow OSHA to inspect awaits a federal judge’s decision.“FFG has fully and voluntarily cooperated except where OSHA sought to expand its investigation without probable cause,” Foundation Food Group lawyer Dane Steffenson wrote in April, saying the company voluntarily provided a thousand pages of documents and facilitated dozens of inspections since January.OSHA acknowledged for the first time on Friday that agency officials asked the Department of Homeland Security to temporarily stop immigration enforcement in Gainesville. It’s the hub of Georgia’s nation-leading poultry industry and processing plants are frequently staffed by people who entered the country illegally.“During the course of this inspection we have had difficulty in reaching workers,” Petermeyer said. “Many of the workers are immigrants, undocumented immigrants.”Families of a number of dead workers are suing the German company Messer and a Messer employee who serviced the system.Spokesperson Amy Ficon wrote in an email that Messer “is committed to learning from the investigations into this tragic incident and doing its part to prevent it from happening again.” Messer declined comment on citations. Ficon said Messer teaches customers to safely operate and maintain equipment and advises customers to use air monitors and personal oxygen detectors for individual workers.———AP Business Writer Alexandra OIson contributed from New York———Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.
Federal workplace safety officials are proposing nearly $1 million in fines against four companies following a January liquid nitrogen leak that killed six workers at a northeast Georgia poultry processing plantBy JEFF AMY Associated PressJuly 23, 2021, 7:44 PM• 4 min readShare to FacebookShare to TwitterEmail this articleATLANTA — Federal workplace safety officials are proposing nearly $1 million in fines against four companies following a liquid nitrogen leak in January that killed six workers at a northeast Georgia poultry processing plant.U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh announced the citations and fines by the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration on Friday.Walsh told reporters the penalties imposed in the case were “relatively large but that is not enough.” He said many companies simply write off OSHA fines as the “cost of doing business” and called on Congress to increase them.“These employers were putting profit over safety,” Walsh said.Foundation Food Group, which owns the Gainesville plant, was cited for 26 violations with a proposed fine of $595,474. Packers Sanitation Services Ltd., which provided cleaning services at the plant, was cited for 19 violations with a proposed fine of $286,720. Messer LLC, which made the freezer system and delivered the nitrogen, was cited for six violations and faces a proposed fine of $74,118. FS Group Inc, which manufacturers and services equipment, was cited for eight violations with a proposed fine of $42,325.OSHA fines and citations are often lowered following informal and formal appeal processes.Foundation Food did not immediately reply to a phone call and emails seeking comment.The plant takes chicken slaughtered elsewhere and prepares items such as patties and nuggets for food service operations, freezing them for shipment.It was a new freezing line that went horribly wrong on the morning of Jan. 28, sending a cloud of liquid nitrogen vapor into a room that was below the floor level of the rest of the plant. Workers tried to flee, but found some exits blocked, investigations have found.Six workers died from “asphyxia due to, or as a consequence of liquid nitrogen exposure” including 45-year-old Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera of Gainesville; 35-year-old Corey Alan Murphy of Clermont; 28-year-old Nelly Perez-Rafael of Gainesville; 41-year-old Saulo Suarez-Bernal of Dawsonville; 38-year-old Victor Vellez of Gainesville; and 28-year-old Edgar Vera-Garcia of Gainesville. Others were hospitalized from nitrogen exposure.The U.S. Chemical Safety Board has previously said that a newly installed conveyor belt system that carried chicken products into a liquid nitrogen bath malfunctioned.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 saidFoundation Food Group had previously said it was “fully cooperating” with investigators, but OSHA officials said Friday that they had issued numerous subpoenas for documents and testimony to compel cooperation.They also for the first time acknowledged that they had asked the Department of Homeland Security to stop immigration enforcement in Hall County, where the hub of Georgia’s nation-leading poultry processing industry is heavily staffed by people who entered the country illegally.“During the course of this inspection we have had difficulty in reaching workers, particularly, many of the workers are immigrants, undocumented immigrants,” said OSHA Atlanta Regional Administrator Kurt Petermeyer.Families of a number of dead workers have filed lawsuits against Messer, the German company that made the liquid nitrogen system, and a Messer employee who visited the plant in the days before the leak to service the system. Those suits allege Messer and the worker are at fault for failing to properly inspect, test, repair or shut down the system before the liquid nitrogen release.Messer spokesperson Amy Ficon wrote in an email that the company “is committed to learning from the investigations into this tragic incident and doing its part to prevent it from happening again.” Messer declined comment on the citations. Ficon said Messer teaches its customers how to safely operate and maintain equipment and advises customers to use safety precautions including air monitors and personal oxygen detectors that individual workers would wear.———AP Business Writer Alexandra OIson contributed from New York———Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.
ATLANTA — Three Democratic U.S. senators from states that have refused to expand Medicaid want the federal government to set up a mirror plan to provide health insurance coverage to people in those states.Sens. Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff of Georgia and Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin are introducing the bill Monday, they told The Associated Press. Congressional Democrats are pushing for a coverage expansion in upcoming legislation.“The single most effective solution to closing our state’s coverage gap is to expand Medicaid,” Warnock said after a June 29 meeting with health care executives. “What we ought to be doing is expanding Medicaid rather than playing games with the health care of Georgia citizens.”The effort is crucial for Warnock, who seeks reelection in 2022 facing several Republicans eager to defeat him.People making more than 138% of the federal poverty level are eligible for federal health insurance subsidies through an online marketplace. But as many as 4 million people who make less don’t get assistance in a “coverage gap,” according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.President Barack Obama’s Affordable Care Act envisioned states would expand Medicaid programs to cover those people, but many conservative states balked. There are 12 holdouts, while an expansion in Missouri mandated by referendum is in limbo after Republican lawmakers refused to pay for it.Democrats increasingly say leaving people without coverage is unacceptable. They tried to lure remaining states with two years of extra money for expansion, but none budged. Baldwin said such a refusal is “just wrong.”“Our legislation will open the door to those who have been shut out and expand access to affordable health care, including preventive care, that people want and need,” she said in a statement.The bill would mandate a new health insurance plan that looks just like Medicaid offered to residents in holdout states. President Joe Biden proposed during his campaign to offer a public option through the federal healthcare marketplace. Democratic Rep. Lloyd Doggett of Texas and others introduced a bill June 17 to let local governments create local Medicaid expansions.The Medicaid approach has key advantages, said Jesse Cross-Call, director of state Medicaid strategy with the liberal-leaning Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.The plan would require no premiums and only small copayments, while those costs can be much higher for individuals on the marketplace. People can enroll in Medicaid year-round, while marketplace enrollment is typically only in the fall, or when someone’s circumstances change.“The idea is for it to be as close to Medicaid coverage as possible,” Cross-Call said.A new plan could take years to set up, though. Many states use managed care networks to provide Medicaid services, and it’s unclear if the federal government would be able to contract with the groups.Sponsors say coverage is already paid for because the original Affordable Care Act included money for all 50 states. States normally shoulder 10% of the cost, but the bill would require no state contributions.The plan also would boost incentives for holdout states to expand on their own. It would raise the federal share of state-federal Medicaid spending by 10 percentage points this coming decade. The current enticement, included in Biden’s coronavirus relief bill, is 5 percentage points for two years. Based on Kaiser Family Foundation estimates, that could be worth a cumulative $160 billion to holdout states and Oklahoma, which launched expansion July 1.Republicans, Warnock said in June, are effectively “standing between Georgia voters and their tax dollars that are still being paid to cover Medicaid in other states.”Republicans aren’t backing down. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp is pursuing a limited expansion that would impose work or education requirements for benefits. It seeks to add 50,000 Georgia residents in its first two years and require everyone to shop for federally subsidized insurance through private agents. The Biden administration is reevaluating previous approval of the plan by the Trump administration, a reversal Kemp says isn’t allowed.“The Biden administration has been, in my opinion, trying to throw up roadblocks to our waiver plan that was approved,” Kemp recently told AP. “Senator Warnock can hit me all he wants on Medicaid. What he never mentions is … working on lowering costs for private sector health care. A lot of people don’t want government health care.”Financial incentives could be required to keep other states from dropping Medicaid expansion to avoid current costs. The bill doesn’t address that.Warnock spokesperson Meredith Brasher reaffirmed that sponsors want the measure attached to any budget reconciliation measure Democrats use to advance educational and social welfare priorities through the Senate without Republican support.“Recovery legislation presents a unique, historic opportunity to close the gaps in coverage for the millions of people in the Medicaid coverage gap,” wrote more than 60 members of the Congressional Black, Hispanic and Asian Pacific American caucuses on June 16.——Associated Press writer Bill Barrow contributed.———Follow Jeff Amy on Twitter at http://twitter.com/jeffamy.