Idaho Potato Processor Fined $273K for Workplace Hazards after Gas Release

By | June 2, 2016

Federal authorities have fined an Idaho food processing company $273,000 following the release of a dangerous gas.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration assessed the fine against Dickinson Frozen Foods.

Federal officials say the large release of anhydrous ammonia in December 2015 at the eastern Idaho plant in Sugar City where Dickinson Frozen Foods process potatoes didn’t cause any injuries but other major ammonia releases at the facility have.

Investigators say they issued 19 serious and two willful citations following the hazardous release at the plant with 220 workers.

“It’s a miracle no Dickinson Frozen Foods employees were killed or hurt last year,” David Kearns, Idaho director for OSHA, said in a statement.

Authorities say the plant lacks an adequate emergency response program and failed to equip employees with protective gear.

The company, which has another plant in Fruitland, didn’t immediately return a call from The Associated Press.

Kearns during a telephone interview with the AP said anhydrous ammonia is used for refrigeration, and is kept under pressure in a closed system.

Under pressure, he said, it’s a liquid. But if the system has a leak, the anhydrous ammonia escapes into the air as a colorless gas with a pungent odor that can damage the eyes and respiratory tract. It can also explode if mixed with other chemicals.

“You need to make sure (the system) is maintained and operated appropriately so we don’t have catastrophic releases to workers or even the surrounding community,” Kearns said.

Among the violations found during an inspection of the eastern Idaho plant, authorities said, were employees exposed to liquid ammonia without chemical protective clothing, employees entering potentially life-threatening atmosphere without appropriate breathing apparatus, and employees responding to an emergency without proper training.

The Sugar City plant process potatoes for use in items such as frozen dinners, federal officials said.

Kearns said the company has asked for negotiations to discuss the fines, with that meeting to take place within the next two weeks.

If the company isn’t happy with the result of those efforts, Kearns said, the company can ask for a review. If the company remains unsatisfied, an appeal can be filed that’s heard by an administrative law judge.

“We’re thankful nobody was hurt and hopeful they will be able to work with us to provide a safe and healthy work site,” Kearns said.

He noted that the average fine in Idaho for safety violations is about $2,500 to $3,000.

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