A liquid nitrogen leak at a northeast Georgia poultry plant killed six people Thursday, with multiple others taken to the hospital, officials said.
At least three of those injured at the Foundation Food Group plant in Gainesville were reported in critical condition.
Poultry plants rely on refrigeration systems that can include liquid nitrogen. Firefighters, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration and the state fire marshal were investigating the cause of the leak.
“It was a leak of unknown cause that has occurred in the system here,” Hall County Fire Department Division Chief Zach Brackett said. “We still have a lot of information we’re trying to gather from the scene.”
Foundation Food Group Vice President for Human Resources Nicholas Ancrum called the leak a tragic accident and said early indications are that a nitrogen line ruptured in the facility.
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.
Workers who had fled the plant were gathered outside when firefighters responded to the leak Thursday morning, Bracket said.
“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.