Tyson disputes findings on chlorine gas accident in 2011

A language barrier is being blamed for the June 2011 chemical accident at Tyson Foods' Berry Street chicken processing plant in Springdale.

Tyson Foods disputes the findings of a federal report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health report on the chlorine gas release that sickened nearly 200 workers, hospitalized 152 people last year.

The CDC reported that the employee who poured sodium hypochlorite into a drum with residual acidic antimicrobial solution could only read Spanish, while the drum was labeled in English.

The drum in question was a sample drum left near the sodium hypochlorite inadvertently, the CDC reported, and the acidic solution was normally stored in larger, square containers. The employee, who the CDC says required a Spanish translator for interviews, knew the chemical combination was dangerous but said he could not read the label.

Tyson spokesman Worth Sparkman said Friday the worker responsible is not Hispanic and his primary language is English and had been properly trained about the hazardous chemicals.

"While there’s no question this was an unfortunate incident, we acted responsibly in addressing it. This study fails to report the corrective actions we’ve already taken to prevent situations like this from happening again and how we’ve worked with affected employees to make sure they received any needed follow-up care," Sparkman said.

The CDC interviewed 545 employees after the gas release, some 152 were hospitalized and three developed reactive airways dysfunction syndrome, which  is an “irritant-induced form of asthma that can persist for life.”

There were several recommendations in the CDC report, including that the plant provide material safety data sheets and labeling in languages spoken at the plant. Spanish is the primary language of 68% of the plant’s employees; the primary language for an additional 12% is Marshallese.

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"Our plant has had an emergency action plan – with evacuation procedures – in place for years that specifically addresses release situations like the one, and it worked effectively during the 2011 incident. While we do have a diverse workforce at this plant, we work hard to communicate with our team members, providing interpreters for those who may not be fluent in English. The plant has a safety committee that involves management and hourly team members to make sure they understand safety-related matters," Sparkman said.

He said most of the affected employees were back on the job within a few days after the incident. About ten were off work for two weeks a couple more needed six weeks to recuperate. One person is still seeking treatment for respiratory systems.

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