A liquid nitrogen leak that started Thursday morning in a poultry plant in Gainesville, Georgia, has reportedly killed six employees, authorities said. Multiple others were injured, with The Associated Press saying that at least three of those are still in critical condition.
When the Hall County Fire Department arrived at the Foundation Food Group plant (formerly known as Prime Pak Foods), most employees had already evacuated the building.
Fire Department Division Chief Zach Brackett said that units responded to a call just after 10 a.m. Thursday.
“Once the units arrived, they found a large contingent of employees that had evacuated, along with multiple victims that were in that crowd that were also experiencing medical emergencies around the facility,” Brackett told reporters in a televised news briefing.
Five employees were already in critical condition before the firefighters arrived and died on the scene before they could be taken to the hospital. The sixth employee was at the local hospital’s emergency department when they passed away. Authorities are currently working to contact next of kin.
“It was a leak of unknown cause that has occurred in the system here,” Brackett said. “We still have a lot of information we’re trying to gather from the scene.”
Poultry plants rely on refrigeration systems that can include liquid nitrogen, ABC News explained. When leaked into the air, liquid nitrogen vaporizes into an odorless gas that’s capable of displacing oxygen. That means leaks in enclosed spaces can become deadly by pushing away breathable air, according to the U.S. Chemical Safety Board.
Brackett said about 130 workers were taken by bus to a nearby church where they were examined for injuries. After examinations, additional employees were sent to the hospital for further review.
Sean Couch, with Northeast Georgia Health Systems, said that a total of 12 patients have been transferred for continued treatment. As of the evening update, three patients had been treated and released, one patient had passed away in the emergency room, three in critical condition, and five in fair condition.
Included in those 12 patients in the hospital included four firefighters who went to the hospital for respiratory symptoms. The evening update included that three of the four firefighters were released to go home. The last one is scheduled to go home tomorrow.
Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been on the scene since this morning and continues to investigate the incident.