Tyson fined for safety violations alleged to cause employee death

By Michelle Massey, East Texas Bureau | Jun 23, 2009

TEXARKANA, Ark. -- Tyson Foods was ordered to pay the maximum criminal fine of $500,000 and serve a year of unsupervised organizational probation after pleading guilty to willfully violating worker safety regulations.

TEXARKANA, Ark. -- Tyson Foods was ordered to pay the maximum criminal fine of $500,000 and serve a year of unsupervised organizational probation after pleading guilty to willfully violating worker safety regulations.

The plea stemmed from allegations that toxic fumes emitted from a machine killed a Tyson employee.

Court papers say the incident occurred on Oct. 10, 2003, at the Texarkana, Ark., River Valley Animal Foods plant. Tyson operates several of these plants that recycle poultry products into protein and fats for the animal food industry.

Part of the recycling process involves using hydrolyzers � high-press steam processors � to convert the poultry feathers into feather meal. Decomposition of the biological material produces hydrogen sulfide gas, which is toxic.

According to the Department of Justice press release, "Employees at the Tyson facilities often were exposed to the toxic gas when working on or near the hydrolyzers, which required frequent adjustment and replacement."

Jason Kelley, a maintenance employee, was attempting to repair a leak on a hydrolyzer packing seal when he was overcome with hydrogen sulfide gas and later died. A co-worker and two emergency responders were hospitalized after they tried to rescue Kelley. Two other employees were treated at the scene.

After a similar incident in March 2002 at the Texarkana plant, Tyson installed a mister and ductwork over the feed end of the hydrolyzer to lessen the hydrogen sulfide gas exposure.

The prosecution argued that Tyson had taken actions to reduce or prevent exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas at other facilities but, despite the incident in 2002, did not take the appropriate and necessary measures to reduce toxic exposure at its Texarkana plant.

According to the plea agreement, Tyson's corporate safety and regional management "were aware that hydrogen sulfide gas was present in RVAF facilities with continuous hydrolyzers, but had not take sufficient steps to (1) provide effective administrative controls, engineering controls and protective equipment to limit the exposure of employees to hydrogen gas or (2) provide effective information and training on hazardous chemicals in the work area as required by the OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration)Act."

John C. Cruden, Acting Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department's Environment and Natural Resources Division, stated, "Federal laws require employees to undertake steps that limit exposure to dangerous substances like the gas that killed Jason Kelley. Tyson Foods is paying the maximum fine for failing to abide by these laws. The Justice Department takes its enforcement responsibilities seriously and companies that ignore these laws and risk their employees' lives will be prosecuted."

The Department of Labor conducted the investigation and the case was prosecuted by the Justice Department's Environmental Crimes Section and the U.S. Attorney's Office for the Western District of Arkansas under the Environmental Crimes Section's worker endangerment initiative.

Although Tyson entered a plea agreement, it was not binding to the court. On June 12, U.S. District Magistrate Judge Barry A. Bryant ordered the fines and probation as stipulated in the plea agreement.

The $500,000 criminal fine is in addition to a $436,000 OSHA fine.

"This was a tragic accident and we remain saddened by the loss of Jason Kelley. We want people to know we have implemented measures to help prevent an accident like this from happening again. Our efforts have included changes in the production process, new ventilation and engineering controls, the use of monitoring and alarm systems, and expanded worker training," Said Gary Mickelson a Tyson Foods' spokesperson.

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