A federal agency says a chlorine leak inside a poultry processing facility that sent 195 employees to hospitals was caused in part because a worker couldn’t read English. In fact, English was the primary language of only 17% of workers there.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) was asked by OSHA to assist with the investigation into the June 27, 2011, release of chlorine inside Tyson’s Springdale, AR, plant.
NIOSH concluded a language barrier was part of the problem, but Tyson disputes that part of the agency’s report.
A worker began to pour sodium hypochlorite into a 55-gallon drum that contained residual acidic antimicrobial solution.
When the two substances interacted, a yellow chlorine gas was released into the small room where the drum was located and then spread into the plant.
About 600 workers were evacuated; 195 sought medical treatment; 152 were hospitalized; 5 were admitted to intensive-care units.
NIOSH says it interviewed the worker who mixed the two chemicals. The employee told NIOSH the drug was labeled in English but he could only read Spanish.
Tyson disputes that. The company says NIOSH misidentified the worker responsible for the incident. Tyson says the worker who mixed the two substances did speak English but failed to look at the label on the drum.
NIOSH says it stands by its report.
High percentage non-Enligh speakers
Of 545 workers interviewed by NIOSH:
- 68% spoke Spanish as their primary language
- 17% primarily spoke English
- 12% spoke Marshallese, an Asian language, and
- 3% spoke primarily other languages.
Poultry processing plants in the U.S. often have a substantial percentage of workers who don’t speak English as their primary language. But the percentages at this Tyson plant were much higher than average. The Bureau of Labor Statistics says 38% of poultry plant workers are Hispanic or Latino, and 9% are Asian.
NIOSH cautions that the potential for injury as a result of inadequate attention to foreign language health and safety training extends beyond the poultry industry. There are about 40.4 million foreign-born residents in the U.S., 47% of whom are Hispanic and 51% of whom report an inability to speak English very well.
Add to that the 30 million adults with below basic literacy skills. Most material safety data sheets are written at a college level.
Under OSHA’s hazard communication standard (both the existing one and the revised Globally Harmonized Standard that is being phased in over the next four years), employers must communicate information about workplace hazards to employees in their own language and to their education level.
OSHA issued a citation to Tyson for not ensuring chemical hazard communication training was understood by all employees.