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Tyson Foods Pleads Guilty, Agrees to Pay $500,000 Fine for Violation that Led to Worker Fatality

On Jan. 6, Tyson Foods Inc. pleaded guilty and agreed to pay the maximum fine of $500,000 for willfully violating worker safety regulations that led to a 2003 fatality in its River Valley Animal Foods (RVAF) plant in Texarkana, Ark., according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

Information filed along with a plea agreement indicates that Tyson operated several RVAF plants that recycled poultry products into protein and fats for the animal food industry. As part of the rendering process in four of the plants, the company used high-pressure steam processors called hydrolyzers to convert the poultry feather into feather meal.

Decomposition of biological material such as poultry feathers produces hydrogen sulfide gas, an acute-acting toxic substance. 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.

As of October 2003, corporate safety and regional management were aware that hydrogen sulfide gas was present in the RVAF facilities and three of the four facilities with hydrolizers had taken measures to protect employees from hydrogen sulfide gas near the hydrolyzers. However, Tyson Foods did not take sufficient steps to implement controls or protective equipment to reduce exposure within prescribed limits or provide effective training to employees on hydrogen sulfide gas at the Texarkana facility despite an identical exposure, resulting in hydrogen sulfide poisoning of an RVAF Texarkana employee in March 2002.

As a result, at approximately 1 a.m. on Oct. 10, 2003, RVAF maintenance employee Jason Kelley was overcome with hydrogen sulfide gas while repairing a leak from a hydrolyzer and later died. Another employee and two emergency responders were hospitalized due to exposure during the rescue attempt. Two employees also were treated at the scene.

“This was a tragic accident and we remain saddened by the loss of Jason Kelley,” Tyson spokesperson Gary Mickelson told EHS Today. “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.”

Tyson “Willfully Ignored” Regulations

“Federal laws require employers to undertake steps that limit exposure to dangerous substances like the gas that killed Jason Kelley. Tyson Foods willfully ignored these regulations and today is being held responsible,” said Ronald J. Tenpas, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division. “The Justice Department takes its enforcement responsibility seriously and companies that ignore these laws and risk their employees’ lives will be prosecuted.”

Tyson Foods pleaded guilty in a U.S. District Court in Arkansas to a “willful violation of an OSHA standard resulting in the death of an employee.” In addition to paying the maximum criminal fine of $500,000, the company also will serve a 1-year probation.

The investigation was conducted by the Department of Labor and 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.
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