February 4, 2021

CSB Investigating Fatal Liquid Nitrogen Release at Georgia Poultry Plant

U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) staff deployed to Gainesville, Ga., to investigate a liquid nitrogen release at a poultry processing plant on Thursday, Jan. 28, that resulted in six fatalities, 12 hospitalizations, and 130 people being evacuated. Katherine Lemos, CSB chair and CEO, provided an update concerning the investigation on Jan. 30 (PDF) and followed up with additional details on Feb. 1.

“The event occurred on Line 4, where chicken is processed, to include seasoning, cooking, freezing, and then packaging,” Lemos said. “CSB investigators are focusing on the cryogenic freezing system, based on information from various sources.”

The use of liquid nitrogen during the flash-freezing process was introduced to the plant in 2020. On Jan. 28, there was a release of liquid nitrogen that rapidly converted to a gas. CSB notes that this gas is heavier than air and forces oxygen out of a room. The agency has learned that unplanned maintenance was being conducted on Line 4 on the day of the release.

Lemos did not speculate about what may have caused the accident and noted that, depending on the complexity of the investigation, determining what led to the event and why it occurred may take years.

Liquid nitrogen is colorless, odorless, and can cause serious injury and death without warning, while nitrogen gas can cause tissue damage or burns, and inhalation may result in dizziness, nausea, vomiting, and loss of consciousness.

The CSB team consists of experts in chemical and mechanical engineering and safety management systems. Other agencies and offices involved in the investigation include local first responders, the Atlanta office of OSHA Region 4, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture Food Safety Inspection Service. Since its arrival, the team has been interviewing plant staff with firsthand knowledge of the event, examining and collecting perishable evidence, and connecting with local emergency management and other agencies and jurisdictions.

For more information about the Jan. 28 nitrogen leak, refer to CSB’s initial press release, Lemos’ full statement (PDF) given on Jan. 30, and CSB’s follow-up statement from Feb. 1.