Immigrant Worker Advocates Demand Changes After Deadly Leak at Poultry Plant

After six employees of a Georgia poultry plant died in a freezing fog of liquid nitrogen vapor, worker advocacy groups and state lawmakers are pushing for changes to immigration policies to protect undocumented employees.  

Foundation Food Group’s plant is seen from the Memorial Drive entrance in Gainesville, Ga., last Friday. (Scott Rogers/The Times via AP)

ATLANTA (CN) — After a deadly liquid nitrogen leak inside a Georgia poultry plant Thursday, legislators and worker advocacy groups called for changes to federal policies which they say prevented the plant’s many undocumented workers from getting necessary health care. 

More than 130 workers were exposed to liquid nitrogen before they were evacuated from the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville, Georgia. Five workers died at the scene and 12 were taken to a local hospital with serious injuries, where one died.

The plant uses liquid nitrogen to flash-freeze chicken. Investigators say that the leak happened on one of the plant’s five production lines.  

Although not harmful in small doses, gaseous nitrogen can reduce the amount of oxygen in the air and cause asphyxiation. The odorless, colorless vapor can be extremely cold and cause tissue damage from freeze burns. 

Ten of the hospitalized workers have been discharged as of Monday morning and one is still there in fair condition, said Beth Downs, a spokeswoman for Northeast Georgia Health System. 

The Foundation Food Group poultry processing plant is just one of many in the Gainesville area, which is nicknamed the poultry capital of the world. Gainesville also has the largest per capita undocumented population in the United States, according to Maria del Rosario Palacios, executive director of Georgia Familias Unidas. 

Georgia is the biggest poultry processing state in the U.S. The Peach State’s $41 billion poultry industry employs more than 45,000 people, many of whom are undocumented. 

During a press conference Monday, Palacios, who says she used to be an undocumented worker in one of the facilities that is now part of Foundation Food Group, pleaded for new policies and protections. 

“Folks should not need to continue to look at me in the eye and the very first words out of their mouth are, ‘Maria, yo no tengo papeles. Maria, I am not documented. I do not have the immigration status to stand up for my rights.’ We need immediate relief for that, we need immediate relief for the other workers who continue to go in on a daily basis and face numerous obstacles to their own safety and well-being,” Palacios said. 

Pointing to reports that some workers avoided seeking medical care for fear that their immigration status would be discovered, state Representative Bee Nguyen called for the removal of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement from Georgia communities. 

“ICE does not make our communities safer and the fear of deportation causes families to hide rather than seek medical attention during accidents like this one and during the pandemic under which we are still suffering,” said Nguyen, an Atlanta Democrat.

State Senator Michelle Au, another Atlanta-area Democrat, also called for “bold new policy changes to protect immigrants” Monday. 

“We cannot be a country who gives a message that an individual’s immigration status is more important than their status as a human being,” Au said. “The lives of immigrants are not disposable, especially as they take on hazardous jobs in an industry that keeps our country fed. It’s our moral duty to take care of them as well.” 

The victims, all employees of Foundation Food Group, were identified by the Hall County Sheriff’s Office Friday as Jose DeJesus Elias-Cabrera, 45; Corey Alan Murphy, 35; Nelly Perez-Rafael, 28; Saulo Suarez-Bernal, 41; Victor Vellez, 38; and Edgar Vera-Garcia, 28. 

Hall County authorities are leading the investigation into the incident alongside the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, but no cause has yet been determined.  

According to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution report, federal Chemical Safety Board investigators expect that a full report on the tragedy could take several years. The board makes safety recommendations but does not issue citations or fines. 

OSHA has inspected or investigated complaints involving the plant before, including two separate incidents in 2017 that involved employees’ fingers being severed after their hands became stuck in equipment. 

A GoFundMe fundraiser created to support the medical and legal expenses of the affected workers and their families had raised more than $29,000 as of Monday morning.  

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