A month before the State of Alabama plans to use nitrogen gas to execute Kenny Smith on Alabama’s death row, the U.S. Chemical Safety and Hazard Investigation Board (CSB) released its final investigation report into the deaths of six Georgia poultry plant workers who died from nitrogen asphyxiation in 2021. The report underscores the extreme risks that nitrogen poses to workers’ lives, even in industries and facilities where the hazardous chemical has long been widely and regularly used.
Like many meatpacking plants, the Foundation Food Group facility in Gainesville, Georgia, used liquid nitrogen to instantly freeze its poultry products.
There is “abundant industry guidance” on the critical importance of safety measures like atmospheric monitoring and adequate emergency preparedness in plants that use liquid nitrogen, the CSB noted, because without sufficient warnings, training, and specialized protective equipment, workers cannot detect the presence of deadly nitrogen gas, which is odorless and colorless.
On January 28, 2021, investigators found that the nitrogen leak at FFG was so deadly because the plant did not adequately inform, train, equip, drill, or otherwise prepare workers for a nitrogen leak. As a result, at least 14 employees entered the contaminated area to investigate or try to rescue coworkers without any safeguards.
No state has ever used nitrogen to execute someone sentenced to death. Alabama’s scheduled execution of Kenny Smith on January 25 has resulted in several legal challenges, some of which raise questions about this risk of harm and death to correctional staff and others involved in the execution. Mr. Smith’s attorneys have argued that the State has not released the information necessary to ensure that nitrogen will not result in torturous death.
In the Georgia case, the CSB found that “[w]orkers were not aware of the deadly consequences of a liquid nitrogen release,” Investigator-in-Charge Drew Sahli said. “[U]ltimately trying to save their colleagues led to them sacrificing their own lives.”
Investigators found that a single point of failure—a “bubbler tube” used to measure liquid nitrogen levels inside the plant’s freezer was bent, likely during regular maintenance—allowed liquid nitrogen to overflow from the freezer and fill the room with an unsafe level of liquid nitrogen.
The liquid nitrogen quickly vaporized into a four- to five-foot-high deadly cloud that killed six employees and seriously injured three other workers and a firefighter who responded to the incident, the CSB said.
The plant had also failed to install air monitoring and alarm devices that could have alerted workers about the dangerous vapor cloud and prevented them from entering the freezer room, the report said.
The 115-page report details the five key safety issues revealed by the FFG leak and provides a dozen safety recommendations for employers that use liquid nitrogen.
“The CSB’s recommendations are important for preventing incidents involving liquid nitrogen and lessening their severity if they do occur,” CSB Chairperson Steve Owens said. “The hazards of liquid nitrogen must be clearly communicated to workers, and the safety management systems for operations that use liquid nitrogen must be improved.”
Despite the deadly risks of liquid nitrogen, there is not a national standard that covers the hazards arising from the storage, use, and/or handling of cryogenic asphyxiants like liquid nitrogen. The CSB is calling on OSHA to create a national standard and to specifically cover liquid nitrogen in its regional programs for poultry processing and food manufacturing.
The report raises serious questions about Alabama’s plan to use nitrogen gas in the upcoming execution of Kenny Smith, specifically what steps the Alabama Department of Corrections has taken to prepare and protect correctional officers, the execution team, and other prison staff from suffering the kind of “needless and senseless tragedy” that claimed six workers’ lives in Georgia.