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Tyson Foods pleads guilty, will pay $500,000 criminal fine for worker's death (1/7)

January 7, 2009

Tyson Foods Inc. has pleaded guilty in U.S. District Court in Arkansas and agreed to pay the maximum fine for willfully violating worker safety regulations that led to a worker’s death in its River Valley Animal Foods (RVAF) plant in Texarkana, Ark., the Justice Department announced.

According to the information filed along with a plea agreement, 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, according to the Justice Department.

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.

But 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.

"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 is being held responsible," said Ronald J. Tenpas, Assistant Attorney General for the Justice Department’s Environment and Natural Resources Division.

The Occupational Safety and Health Act (OSHA) requires that employers furnish places of employment free from recognized hazards that are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees. This includes taking steps to ensure that employee exposure to dangerous substances such as hydrogen sulfide gas remains within prescribed limits. Tyson Foods pleaded guilty to a "willful violation of an OSHA standard resulting in the death of an employee," the most serious offense available to OSHA.

According to the plea agreement, Tyson Food has agreed to pay $500,000, the maximum criminal fine. The company also will serve one-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.