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What caused the lethal US packaged food explosion?

10 June 2009

Two workers were confirmed dead and 20 other employees were hospitalised shortly after an explosion at one of North America's largest packaged foods companies caused catastrophic damage to a ConAgra Foods plant on Jones Sausage Road in Garner, NC.

Explosion at US packaged food plant kills two
Explosion at US packaged food plant kills two

At least 300 people were at work in the plant at the time of the incident, on Tuesday morning this week.

Eyewitnesses at the scene reported a loud and very sudden explosion as well as a smell of ammonia. The explosion collapsed the roof on one side of the building, knocked down walls and blew debris around the area. One of the building's walls was blown outward, crushing a line of cars. There was also a leak of anhydrous ammonia but it is still unclear if this was the cause of the incident or the result of the explosion. ConAgra implemented its emergency plan immediately after the explosion, dumping the ammonia from lines in the plant into a settling pond, no doubt contributing to the smell of ammonia in the air.

Many of the injured suffered from exposure to the toxic fumes and some also suffered severe burns. US Environmental Protection Agency officials on site indicated that there was no general health risk to the local residents. Three firefighters were also treated for smoke inhalation.

One worker was still unaccounted for on the afternoon of the disaster and a further 18 received hospital treatment for minor injuries or heat exhaustion as the incident was being dealt with. The US Chemical Safety Board dispatched an investigation team headed by Investigations Supervisor Don Holmstrom, the same day. A CSB board member, William Wark, accompanied the team to the Garner site. ConAgra has also sent a team of experts from its Omaha, Neb, headquarters to the plant to help determine the cause of the explosion.

The Garner plant has a record of previous safety violations, which will no doubt be considered by the investigating inspectors. State and federal regulators last inspected the plant in July last year and found no problems. But a number of violations for were found in 2006 and 2007 regarding a lack of eye and face protection and communications about hazardous materials. Five of eight inspections since 2003, however, found no violations.

In 2001, inspectors noted 34 violations, including guards for wall and floor openings. The company settled with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration by paying a $12,100 fine.

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