NC employee dies same day fridge malfunctions: Company


The Tar Heel, North Carolina facility was evacuated, officials said.

The Tar Heel, North Carolina facility was evacuated, officials said.

Screenshot from Google Maps

Ammonia forced the evacuation of a North Carolina food plant, sending four workers to the hospital, officials said.

A potentially dangerous gas was released at the plant hours before a worker was found passed out in the parking lot. The employee died of circumstances believed to be unrelated to the ammonia release Smithfield Foods.

The company — which makes several meat products — reported the incidents Jan. 6 at its plant in Tar Hill, about 85 miles south of Raleigh.

At approximately 1 a.m., officials said a walk-in freezer malfunctioned, causing ammonia to enter the refrigeration portion of the building.

“The entire facility was immediately evacuated,” Smithfield Foods said in an emailed statement to McClatchy News. “Four employees were sent to hospital for observation after experiencing nausea and have since been released.”

While Smithfield Foods said fewer than 800 people were inside at the time of the incident, Bladen County Emergency Management told WECT that approximately 2,500 were evacuated. The company shut down the Tar Heel plant for the day and said it would make repairs before reopening the facility on Jan. 7.

At approximately 4:30 a.m., the worker was found unresponsive outside the facility and pronounced dead. While Smithfield Foods said the employee’s cause of death is unknown, Bladen County officials said he suffered cardiac arrest, WECT reported.

“He was not working in the refrigeration section and there is no indication that this was related to the ammonia release at the plant,” Smithfield Foods wrote in a statement.

In response to a McClatchy News request for information, the NC Department of Labor said in an email that “we cannot confirm anything at this time, but we do have compliance officers en route to the site.”

Ammonia has several uses, including in the refrigerator, agriculture and housekeeping. People are advised to use ammonia with caution because it is a “colorless, flammable gas with a pungent, suffocating odor” at room temperature, according to the NC Department of Health and Human Services.

“High ammonia levels can cause irritation and burns to the skin, mouth, throat, lungs, and eyes,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention wrote. “Very high levels of ammonia can damage the lungs or lead to death.”

Bladen County Emergency Services did not immediately respond to McClatchy News’ Jan. 6 request for additional information.

Simone Jasper is a reporter who covers breaking news for The News & Observer and real-time news in the Carolinas.

NC employee dies same day fridge malfunctions: Company

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