Last Thursday, January 28, emergency responders in Gainesville, Georgia, about 60 miles northeast of Atlanta, began to receive 911 calls from Plant 4 of the Foundation Foods Prepared Food Division in that city.  

One caller reported, “I’ve got two people not breathing.”  Another said he had gotten a call from another part of the plant saying that someone could be “frozen from liquid nitrogen.”  

Firemen recovered five bodies from the facility and took ten people to hospitals, where one later died from injuries received in the accident. Five of the workers who died had Hispanic names — Gainesville, the “poultry capital of the world”, is a Mecca for Hispanic immigrants looking for work.

Liquid nitrogen is manufactured by the ton for food processing applications such as flash freezing.  At a news conference following the accident, the US Chemical Safety Board Chairman and CEO Katherine Lemos said that the factory receives two or three tank trucks of liquid nitrogen (LN2) every day.  At a temperature of -320 F (-195 C), liquid nitrogen freezes nearly everything it touches, as long as you have enough of it.  

For one summer in my somewhat misspent youth, I worked at a facility that made the frozen cornbread sticks known in the South as hushpuppies.  After being squeezed out of a gizmo that worked like a gang of toothpaste tubes, the sticks were cut up and went through a stainless-steel tunnel about three feet on a side and ten feet long.  By the time they came out they were hard enough to use as a murder weapon, though that never occurred to me at the time. 

Something along the same lines was probably in use at Foundation Foods, only scaled up to handle tons of chicken parts.  With proper ventilation and control of the release rate, liquid-nitrogen flash freezing can be a safe and efficient way of making frozen foods.  But obviously, too much LN2 at once in one place can create major hazards.  If the skin contacts LN2 for more than a second or so, the tissues freeze and create serious burn-like injuries, and if such injuries are extensive it can result in death.  And even people who are not in direct contact with the super-cold liquid can suffocate when it boils and expands by many times to exclude the oxygen in ambient air.

A combination of these hazards ended the lives of six workers at the Foundation Foods plant and injured nine more in one of the most serious cryogenic accidents in recent memory.  

The CSB news conference revealed that the freezing system involved had been installed in the last four to six weeks, and tools were found in the vicinity of the system, indicating there may have been a maintenance problem.  Within a short time after the accident occurred, the main shutoff valves from the LN2 tanks outside the building were turned off, limiting the damage.  But by that time a number of serious injuries had been sustained.

Working at a meat-processing plant is no picnic.  The work environment is dictated by microbiologists whose paramount concern is to avoid contaminating the product with bacteria or other pathogens.  Employees must follow strict protocols such as stepping in sanitising baths before entering certain spaces, wearing clothing to prevent contamination, and enduring long hours of repetitive and strenuous work in windowless, noisy, and often cramped spaces.  

Add to these trials the new complications imposed by COVID-19 restrictions on employee spacing and contact, and it is no wonder that meat-processing jobs are not more popular.  But the work is steady and for those who can take it, it is often one of the very few options in rural parts of the country.

Moving from facts to speculation, it’s pretty clear that a whole lot of LN2 got loose at once where it wasn’t supposed to be.  A properly designed plant would have had sufficient ventilation to keep ahead of whatever LN2 is released under normal operating circumstances, but could have been overwhelmed if a supply pipe cracked under the stress of extreme cold or a joint came loose.

In the hushpuppy plant I worked in back in the 1970s, the largest pipe going to the LN2 tunnel might have been an inch in diameter.  If that pipe had broken, there were numerous ways to escape, but all the same, I wouldn’t have wanted to try to get out of there in a hurry.  

While I didn’t particularly enjoy that job, it never occurred to me to worry about the possibility of death by LN2, although the supervisors warned us to be careful when opening up the tunnel to clear a jam, as there might be puddles of LN2 lying around and we shouldn’t touch it.

The conditions that some of our lowest-paid workers endure in the US would surprise many people.  As news reports noted, we never get to see news footage of conditions inside meat-processing plants.  We buy inexpensive frozen chicken at my house, but I rarely give a thought to the conditions under which it was packed, despite having worked in the industry briefly and taken a tour of an Idaho hamburger plant in connection with some technical work.  The tour convinced me never to accept another such invitation again. 

The Bureau of Labor Statistics says that the average hourly wage of animal slaughtering and processing workers in the US is $13.76.  If the Biden administration succeeds in passing a national $15-an-hour minimum-wage law, that will significantly alter the economics of frozen chicken manufacturing, perhaps pushing it outside the country altogether.  

Would that be a good thing?  Would you rather have a lousy uncomfortable dangerous job, or no job at all?  Six of the employees of Foundation Foods are now beyond such concerns, but for the sake of the others in such plants across the country, I hope both the wages and the working conditions improve after we learn what went wrong in Gainesville.

Karl D. Stephan

Karl D. Stephan received the B. S. in Engineering from the California Institute of Technology in 1976. Following a year of graduate study at Cornell, he received the Master of Engineering degree in 1977...