Are injured poultry plant workers eligible for workers’ compensation benefits in Georgia?
In January 2021, a tragic accident occurred at a poultry processing plant in Gainesville, Georgia, killing 6 people and injuring many more. It was caused by a liquid nitrogen leak from a freezer room in the plant.
In this plant, refrigeration was produced with liquid nitrogen. When it leaked, the liquid nitrogen vaporized into an invisible, odorless gas, which deprived the air of oxygen. Six people who unwittingly entered the freezer died from asphyxiation. Many more were hospitalized with serious respiratory problems.
The federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) investigated the accident and found that a freezer malfunction caused the leak. They also found that the employer had failed to properly train its employees and didn’t have the permit required for confined space precautions. They also didn’t have any lockout-tagout procedures in place for the freezers. OSHA officials called the deaths “entirely avoidable.”
Is an employer liable for poultry plant injuries?
The relevance of the Gainesville accident is two-fold.
First, whether or not the employer was negligent is irrelevant because Georgia has a no-fault insurance system when it comes to workplace accidents, injuries and illnesses. The poultry plant employer would be liable under the Georgia workers’ compensation law regardless of negligence or fault.
Secondly, the remedies available to the survivors of the deceased employees or the injured employees are not restricted to the workers’ compensation benefits.
Though workers’ compensation prevents workers from suing their employer in most cases, employees and their families are allowed to file civil lawsuits under common law, personal injury law or wrongful death law in Georgia against third parties.
There are numerous reasons for pursuing these other remedies. One is that workers’ compensation benefits do not include damages for pain and suffering or punitive damages, except in rare cases. Also, the Georgia wrongful death statute could bring greater damage awards.
In addition, an injured employee and/or their dependents might have a cause of action against third parties (not the employer). In the Gainesville incident, OSHA proposed fines of more than $1 million against 4 companies—the employer, the refrigerator manufacturer, the equipment installers and the cleaning services companies. As a result, personal injury and wrongful death lawsuits have been filed against these third-party companies.
Unlike workers’ compensation, these other civil remedies require the plaintiff to prove fault—in other words, to show that the defendant’s actions or inactions were the proximate cause of the injury and that the defendant did not satisfy a standard of care, as well as other requirements. A claim for punitive damages requires evidence of egregious negligence or willful neglect. Finally, an employer’s willful and other blatant neglect may influence the penalty imposed by the Georgia State Board for failure to carry the required insurance.
An injured employee or their dependents should always consult an experienced workmans’ comp lawyer immediately following a workplace accident.
Common poultry plant hazards
While the Gainesville accident was an unusual tragedy, there are many hazards in a poultry plant workplace.
OSHA reports that poultry plant employees are regularly exposed to diseases and biological hazards from handling live birds, contamination from bird feces and dust. High noise levels from industrial machinery threaten hearing loss. Slippery floors cause slip-and-fall injuries. Musculoskeletal disorders can result from repetitive assembly line duties. Poultry plant employees are also frequently exposed to hazardous chemicals, including ammonia and liquid nitrogen.
OSHA has numerous hazard control regulations in place to maximize safety in poultry processing workplaces. Employers must comply with those safety guidelines, and failure to do so can result in OSHA fines.
How does workers’ compensation work in Georgia?
Georgia worker’s compensation law requires most employers to carry insurance if they employ 3 or more employees.
The employer is required to pay compensation and other benefits for lost income, qualified medical and rehabilitation treatment and death to the injured employee and their dependents as a result of work-related injury, illness, and death.
The injury, illness, or death losses must be suffered while they are doing assigned duties during assigned work hours. An employee’s injury, illness, or death is not covered if it occurs during lunch breaks or while performing other unassigned duties.
Typically, an employer will satisfy their legal obligation by purchasing workers’ compensation insurance or, if qualified, by self-insuring. Employers who fail to carry required coverage are subject to civil and criminal penalties ranging from fines to jail time. They include civil fines of $500 to $5,000 per violation and criminal fines of $1,000 to $10,000. A corporate executive or business owner can go to jail for up to 1 year.
If you are injured, you must file a claim on Form WC-14 provided by the State Board of Workers’ Compensation. But the first thing to do is immediately report the injury to your employer. If you wait more than 30 days, you will probably lose your benefits. You will then need to see a physician from a list approved by the State Board, which should be posted at your workplace.
While workers’ compensation is a no-fault system in Georgia, failure to implement OSHA’s recommended measures can have an indirect impact on an employee’s workers’ compensation claim. For example, the Georgia Board of Workers’ Compensation hears claims and those claims could ultimately end up in an Administrative Law court. Such cases often require subjective judgments that inevitably are influenced by an employer’s gross negligence or disregard of OSHA’s standards.