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ICE must stay away from investigation of tragedy at Gainesville, GA poultry plant

Thursday, February 18, 2021
Press Contacts: 

Roger Kerson, Roger@nationalcosh.org, 734.645.0535

National COSH: ICE must stay away from investigation
of tragedy at Gainesville, GA poultry plant

Workers must be free from retaliation during probe of
iquid nitrogen leak that claimed six lives, say safety advocates

LOS ANGELES  –  The National Council for Occupational Safety and Health (National COSH) said today that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) can have no role whatsoever during the investigation of a chemical disaster that claimed six lives and injured many others at a Foundation Food Group poultry plant in Gainesville, Georgia.
“ICE and its agents do not belong anywhere near a workplace safety investigation,” said National COSH Co-Executive Director Jessica Martinez. “Every worker, regardless of immigration status, has the right to speak freely about safety problems at work. Any suggestion that workers might face arrest, deportation or any form of retaliation for giving testimony is a terrible insult to the six workers who died and their families.”

Martinez spoke in reaction to an alarming report from the Project on Government Oversight (POGO), which indicates “highly unusual” communication between ICE and Bruce Walker, a senior official at the U.S. Chemical Safety Board (CSB).  Both the CSB and the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are investigating the Gainesville disaster. Six workers died in January and 12 were hospitalized after a leak of liquid nitrogen, which is used to freeze poultry processed at the facility.

The POGO report states that “plant workers—many of whom allegedly are undocumented—fear being arrested or monitored by ICE while going to and from witness interviews.”

In addition, an investigation by Prism, a non-profit newsroom, found that “representatives from the Foundation Food Group are grilling the survivors about their nationality and immigration status before allowing them to access medical care and worker’s compensation.” A number of survivors from the tragic incident are still suffering symptoms from exposure to highly toxic liquid nitrogen.

“Fear silences workers,” said Marianela Acuña Arreaza, Southern Region Coordinator at National COSH . “If workers are silenced, we’ll never learn what really happened at Gainesville -- and we’ll miss out on a chance to prevent future tragedies.”

The U.S. Department of Labor, OSHA’s parent agency, has a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with ICE’s parent agency, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which limits ICE enforcement activity during federal Investigations of safety violations, wage theft and other labor law violations. “Effective enforcement of labor law,” the MOU states, “is essential to ensure proper wages and working conditions for all covered workers regardless of immigration status.”  There is no such memorandum in effect between DHS and the Chemical Safety Board.

“With or without a memo, there’s no doubt what needs to happen. ICE needs to back off and let safety investigators do their work,” said Acuña Arreaza. “And the Foundation Food Group must make it clear they will not harass victims of a preventable disaster, and do everything possible to help them receive health care and other assistance.”

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National COSH links the efforts of local worker health and safety coalitions in communities across the United States, advocating for elimination of preventable hazards in the workplace. For more information, please visit coshnetwork.org. Follow us at National COSH on Facebook, and @NationalCOSH on Twitter.