Immigrant rights groups in Georgia are calling for greater protection for workers after a nitrogen leak in a poultry factory in North Georgia killed six people and injured about a dozen others.
The plant has had multiple workplace violations in recent years, according to records from the Occupational Safety and Health Agency. The latest includes two amputations in 2017.
“The same facility was lacking goggles,” said Shelly Anand, executive director of Sur Legal Collaborative. The organization campaigns for the rights of migrant workers in Georgia.
Maria del Rosario Palacios heads the GA Familias Unidas advocacy group. She worked in meat processing plants straight out of high school. She says reporting violations at these facilities is intimidating and recalls a time she slipped into a facility.
“When I wanted to report on it, I was mocked by the HR department and the plant manager, who reminded me that I am young and I am fine and I can walk away,” says Palacios.
The nitrogen leak occurred at a Foundation Food Group facility that was formerly called Prime Pak Foods. However, according to Palacios, workplace violations are not only specific to this facility.
“Unfortunately, that’s the norm,” she says. “So we are working with a really small number of security protocols and protective measures for our employees.”
Gainesville is known as the “Poultry Capital of the World” due to the number of processing plants there. A large number of immigrants work in these institutions. over 40% of Gainesville is latino.
According to Palacios, poultry factories employ a large number of undocumented workers. She says workers affected by the leak fear being deported if they go to the hospital. Because of this, she says, they may not receive medical attention for injuries.
“Unfortunately, people’s biggest worry is, ‘Should I really go to the hospital? What will they ask for? Do I need to talk to them about my status? “, She says.
In addition to medical care, residents need help with funeral expenses, food for the unemployed, and legal services.
Vanessa Sarazua heads the Hispanic Alliance Georgia, based in Gainesville. She says workers also need more bilingual counselors on mental health services.
“The trauma is so obvious that they cannot sleep at night,” says Sarazua. “The trauma is obvious because they keep getting flashbacks from their employees at the time.”
Cooling systems are common in meat processing plants Use liquid nitrogen. If it gets into the air, it can displace oxygen.
The US Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board Investigation of the incident is in progress.
During a press conference on Saturday, Katherine Lemos, chairman and CEO of the board of directors, said that some of the nitrogen system equipment in question had recently been installed.
“We know that large parts of the liquid nitrogen system, both inside and outside, have been installed and commissioned in the last four to six weeks,” said Lemos.
The board says that ammonia-based freezers were used prior to the recent installation.