USA - Ammonia Leak Kills Workers - Company Prosecuted

Mountaire Farms fined for fatal ammonia leak
By Tom Johnston on 12/16/2009
Mountaire Farms has been fined $73,325 for nearly two dozen safety violations six months after an ammonia leak at the company's Lumber Bridge, N.C., chicken processing plant, the Charlotte Observer reported.

Among the citations state labor officials issued was that Mountaire failed to ensure employees were properly fitted for respirators that were cleaned and disinfected, the report said.

Labor Department officials said the penalties aren't aimed at compensating for a fatality and injuries. "We want to learn from the set of circumstances that led to this tragic accident with the ultimate goal of educating others so this type of accident does not occur again," they said in a statement.

Mountaire Farms issued the following statement to Meatingplace:

"We take any safety recommendation or violation seriously and are in the early stages of reviewing the response by North Carolina OSHA. The company cooperated fully with authorities throughout the investigation and will work in close contact with North Carolina OSHA as additional safety measures are evaluated, recommended and implemented accordingly."

The ammonia leak occurred June 20. One worker died and four others were hospitalized.

Avoiding another tragedy: Experts discuss keys to plant safety

By Ann Bagel Storck on 6/22/2009
Last weekend's fatal ammonia leak at Mountaire Farms' poultry plant in Lumber Bridge, N.C., (see Mountaire Farms plant to reopen today following fatal ammonia leak) on the heels of a June 9 gas leak at ConAgra Foods' Garner, N.C., plant that killed three and sent dozens to the hospital — both powerful reminders of the dangers inherent in meat and poultry processing.

Georgia Tech has an Occupational Safety and Health Program aimed at helping meat and poultry workers learn ways to work around the hazards of the job. Paul Schlumper, the program's safety engineering branch manager, and Art Wickman, its health sciences branch manager, outlined areas of particular concern and how processors can cope.

What potential safety hazards would you identify in meat and poultry plants that are commonly overlooked or misunderstood?

SCHLUMPER: We have been doing quite a bit of training with third-shift sanitation workers. Slips, trips and falls are major issues. You don't see the media coverage on those, but serious injuries are resulting.

Another big issue on sanitation shift is equipment lockout. On a production shift, what you would typically expect and require of employees is that if the machine guards are removed, they shut the machine down and follow an established lockout procedure before anybody is exposed to any hazardous moving equipment. On sanitation shift that's a particular issue, because oftentimes you really want to have the equipment running and moving while they're cleaning. You want to get the equipment clean, but obviously you don't want people exposed to the hazards of moving equipment while they're cleaning.

WICKMAN: Noise in a lot of these facilities is well above the level at which you need a hearing conservation program, but in spite of that a lot of companies do not have good programs in place, they're not maintaining the volumetric records that they need to or they're not enforcing the use of hearing protection. Although [noise] is not [often] overlooked, I think it's something that's undervalued and not well managed.

SCHLUMPER: Another area of interest is combustible dust and the hazards associated with it. Anybody in the food processing industry with dust or dry ingredients could potentially have this issue. There's a document on the OSHA Web site that is really helpful for folks that have to deal with combustible dust issues.

Combustible dust is obviously a very detailed [concern], but one of the first things that companies need to look at is their overall housekeeping. Another thing that a company needs to do is find out whether their dust is combustible. Have they had it sent off to a laboratory or checked with their suppliers to determine whether the dust is combustible?

Dealing with all the potential sources of ignition of dust is another [issue], anything from non-classified electrical equipment to improper use of forklifts in areas where combustible dust fires are possible.

Ammonia is another hazard in meat and poultry plants that has made headlines recently. What safety tips should processors keep in mind when it comes to ammonia safety?

WICKMAN: The Process Safety Management Standard requires that you make sure that your ammonia system is meeting all current engineering standards, basically. And there are certain checklists that people can use. One of them is the International Institute of Ammonia Refrigeration checklist, which is an extensive checklist that people go through to make sure that they're meeting design criteria, and it allows you to check the system.

Basically, you don't want ammonia to be free in the work atmosphere. It's really something that you want to keep contained within a system that you know is engineered correctly and operating correctly. There's not really an issue of what is a safe level of exposure for your employees — it should be zero. And you pretty quickly know if you're not at zero, because ammonia is really a pungent, irritating substance.

Really the intent is to have someone who is completely familiar with the Process Safety Management Standard for ammonia, and oftentimes a lot of companies will rely on consultants who specialize in that. I also often see that there will be one person — for instance, a head of maintenance — who really has complete knowledge of maintaining that system. It's not a system where you can hire any old ventilation guy to go in and work on it. The person who is in charge of that really has to have a specialized and detailed knowledge of handling ammonia in those systems.

What general advice would you share with meat and poultry plant workers when it comes to maintaining the safest working environment possible?

Every industrial facility should have a written emergency action plan in place, they should have their employees trained and they should actually perform drills periodically, at least annually. That's one general requirement of OSHA that a lot of companies, especially smaller companies, don't address.

In any emergency situation where you might need people to evacuate or go quickly to a shelter, you want to make sure all your aisles and exit paths are clear, the exit doors are all unobstructed and unlocked and marked.

Another thing is, depending on what their response is going to look like, [processing plant workers] may need additional training under the Hazardous Waste Operations Emergency Response Standard. If a company's just going to call 911 and have some outside agency come in and take care of the leak or the release or whatever it is, then that's one thing. But if their own employees are going to be trying to stop the release or at least try to contain the release, then there's going to be quite a bit of additional training that they need to give to those employees.

The key factors here are the size and the resources of the company, and the location too. If you're in a very rural area, then you may not feel comfortable with the capabilities of the outside service coming in and helping you. It will likely be a combination of both outside responders and in-house personnel, and I think there needs to be a coordination of that sort of emergency response.