UPDATED with the response from Airgas:
Weeks before a deputy was killed at a Georgia sperm bank, the company and its gas supplier knew that a tank could improperly release nitrogen inside the facility, according to findings by the state fire commissioner’s office and by OSHA.
Indeed, other people had been exposed to asphyxiation hazards before Sgt. Greg Meagher died after inhaling liquid nitrogen in the February incident at Xytex in Augusta, inspection reports show.
In December, a few days after Airgas USA installed a 3,000 gallon bulk storage tank, a Xytex employee attempted to cool cryogenic freezers with the liquid nitrogen. Instead, relief valves began discharging the gas inside the room, according to findings released by Insurance and Fire Commissioner Ralph Hudgens, and the worker had to shut off the gas.
Then in January, when an Airgas service manager tested the tank, employees were exposed again to potential asphyxiation hazards, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration found.
That January visit was the trigger for a deadly chain of events.
After inspecting the tank, the Airgas service manager told Xytex it needed recalibration, according to findings released by the fire commissioner. But the service manager didn’t re-label the tank.
Then on Feb. 5 — a Sunday — an Airgas truck delivered liquid nitrogen. The trucker filled the Xytex tank as instructed by the service decal. That overpressurized the tank, triggering release valves. Then, instead of releasing the gas outdoors, as safety measures require, the valves released liquid nitrogen gas inside the building.
An alarm was somehow triggered, and Xytex employee Anita Wylds went to the building to see what was wrong, according to a news report. She was immediately burned, the report said, and then collapsed.
Responding to the alarm, Meagher and other Richmond County deputies went to Xytex and saw vapors coming from under a door. They tried to go in but were forced out by fumes.
Meagher, though, went back in.
He, too, was overcome. Firefighters eventually arrived, but it was too late to save Meagher. Wylds was critically injured but survived. Three other deputies exposed to the gas also survived.
In releasing findings from the state investigation Wednesday, Hudgens said he was imposing a $297,500 fine on Airgas.
“The industrial gas leak may have been avoided if the proper servicing decal had been affixed to the bulk storage tank,” he said in a news release. “Either an employee not following through with the proper procedures or a lack of communication between the two companies led to this tragic event.”
In addition to the Xytex violations, Hudgens said the fine reflected years of other violations. Hundreds of Airgas tanks in Georgia have failed to have required re-inspections since installation, according to the news release from Hudgens’ office.
Airgas was also fined $5,000 — the maximum allowed by state law — for failure to report the Xytex incident promptly to his office. State inspectors learned of the incident the following day, from news reports.
In a written statement, Airgas said that since the February incident, it worked with Xytex, Hudgens and other authorities to support the investigation, and that the company is continuing its own investigation.
The company said it also partnered with Hudgens to facilitate in-service inspections of Airgas pressure vessels throughout Georgia.
“These inspections have been ongoing since March and are in addition to our regular safety inspections and maintenance provided by qualified technicians,” the statement says.
But the statement goes on to say that the Xytex incident involved several companies.
The company noted that it did not design nor install the piping or ventilation inside the building.
“We feel the commissioner’s press release does not reflect the complexity of the incident,” says the statement from Corporate Communications Director Sarah S. Boxler. The statement also notes that Hudgens’ full report is yet to come.
OSHA’s report, released late last month, proposed $25,350 in penalties for Airgas.
In its findings, OSHA cited Xytex for not having an emergency response plan, imposing an initial penalty of $30,421, the agency’s records show.
Nitrogen is liquid at extremely low temperatures, so cold that it can cause instant freezing on contact with living tissue. When exposed to room temperatures, though, liquid nitrogen evaporates and expands into a gas, displacing oxygen. Victims essentially suffocate.