GAINESVILLE, Ga. — Six workers at the nonunion Foundation Food Group poultry plant here were killed Jan. 28 when a liquid nitrogen line ruptured and spewed a deadly freezing fog of nitrogen vapor. Nitrogen, used to freeze chicken, can reduce the oxygen in the air and cause asphyxiation, as well as death from burns from the cold.
Five of the workers died at the plant. A dozen workers were taken to an emergency room with injuries and respiratory difficulties. One of those died at the hospital and three are in critical condition. Some 130 workers had to be evacuated and the plant remains closed.
“I work in the area where the nitrogen leak happened,” María Caudillo told the Militant as we sat in her carport. “I don’t know what happened. I fainted and when I woke up I was in the hospital.” She asked that her actual name not be used for this article. “I never expected something like this would happen and we are all affected by this.”
Caudillo said she makes $11.60 an hour and works long hours. She hasn’t heard anything from her bosses since the incident.
The U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board reported that major portions of the plant’s liquid nitrogen system were installed in just the past four to six weeks.
Foundation Food Group was formed out of a merger between Prime Pak Foods and Victory Processing on Jan. 1. Prime Pak has a long history of citations by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration for serious health and safety violations.
“Workers should be able to have a safe environment,” Pedro López, a maintenance mechanic for six years at a poultry plant years ago, told this worker-correspondent, who was going door to door in the area talking with workers. “If you see it is not safe, you should be able to say no, and everybody should stick together and say when something isn’t safe,” said López.
The workers who were killed were José DeJesús Elías-Cabrera, Corey Alan Murphy, Nelly Perez-Rafael, Saulo Súarez-Bernal, Víctor Véllez and Édgar Vera-García.
There are some 45,000 poultry workers in Georgia, many in the Gainesville area, 50 miles north of Atlanta.
“I know a lot of those who work at Pilgrim’s Pride and they describe the tough work and the refrigerated conditions,” Ronald Araújo, who works in his family’s pupusería as a baker and server, told the Militant, adding that one of those killed was a regular customer. “Many don’t have ‘correct papers’ and the companies take advantage of this — thinking they won’t stand up to them.”
“Had simple safety protocols been followed today workers’ lives wouldn’t have been on the line,” Stuart Appelbaum, president of the Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union, said in a statement released Jan. 28 by the union. The RWDSU represents more than 15,000 poultry workers in plants across the South. “The egregious lack of standards at non-union facilities like the one in Gainesville cost essential workers their lives today,” said Appelbaum.
The United Food and Commercial Workers union is calling for an immediate investigation and for the company to be prosecuted if corners were cut on safety, Mark Lauritsen, director of the food processing, packing and manufacturing division of the UFCW, told the press.
Rachele Fruit, Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of Atlanta, who works as a cashier at Walmart and is a former meatpacker, attended a Jan. 30 vigil and talked to workers door to door in Gainesville.
“We say no worker has to die,” she told workers. “When we unite and fight for a union in our workplace we can have a say over our wages and working conditions. Work can be organized safely if workers take control over production. The bosses cut corners and speed up the line to maximize their profits.
“Amnesty for all undocumented immigrants is a crucial question here in order to unite workers and cut across divisions the bosses use to drive down wages,” she said. “Our unions need to break from the two parties of the bosses — the Democrats and Republicans. Workers need our own party, a labor party.”