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An Idaho frozen food manufacturer failed to safeguard employees and remained unprepared to respond to a potentially lethal release of 1,300 lbs. of anhydrous ammonia on Dec. 1, said officials of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

While no one died or suffered injury in the December incident, other major ammonia releases at Dickinson Frozen Foods, Inc. have hospitalized employees at the Sugar City, ID, facility in the past.

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In its review of the latest incident, federal investigators found the company lacked adequate emergency response program and training, and failed to equip employees with protective clothing and respirators.

OSHA investigators issued 19 serious and two willful citations following the hazardous release. The agency fined Dickinson $273,000. An OSHA investigation after the incident uncovered dozens of hazards related to emergency response, respiratory protection and process safety management of hazardous materials violations.

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“It’s a miracle no Dickinson Frozen Foods employees were killed or hurt last year,” said David Kearns, OSHA area director in Boise. “We’re confident that workers at the facility will be much better protected by tightened safety procedures the company has agreed to institute should another release occur.”

Anhydrous ammonia is a colorless gas with a distinctively pungent odor widely used in agricultural and industrial refrigeration systems. The ammonia vapor severely irritates and can easily damage the eyes and respiratory tract. Mixtures with certain other chemicals can produce violent reactions and explosions.

OSHA found numerous violations during its inspection, including:
• The facility failed to maintain a “process safety management plan” that spells out a framework for any use, storage, handling or movement of highly hazardous chemicals
• Employees exposed to liquid ammonia without chemical protective clothing
• Employees entered a potentially life-threatening atmosphere without self-contained breathing apparatus
• Employees not medically evaluated or fit tested to wear respirators
• Employees untrained on the facility’s emergency response plan when hired and when they changed positions
• Employees responded to an emergency without proper emergency response training
• The employer did not evaluate respiratory hazards during the ammonia leak response

OSHA investigators have inspected Dickinson Frozen Foods facilities several times since 2009, citing the company for serious violations of fall hazards, respiratory hazards, confined space, emergency exits and response procedures.

The Dickinson Frozen Foods facility in Sugar City employs over 220 workers, who process, clean, blanch and freeze potatoes before ultimately inspecting and shipping them for downstream distribution. The company sells processed potatoes for use in consumer items such as frozen dinners.

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