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Year in review: JBS ammonia leak sends employees to hospital

Brian korthals/daily globe Worthington Ambulance personnel move one of the victims by stretcher in preparation for a tranfer to Sanford Regional Hospital Worthington June 2 following an ammonia leak at the JBS meat packing plant in Worthington. Worthington police, fire and rescue and the Nobles County Sheriff's Office also responded to the scene.

WORTHINGTON -- The JBS plant here was the site of two ammonia leaks this past year -- one of which caused significantly more alarm than the other.

Between 40 and 50 JBS employees were transported to Sanford Regional Hospital Worthington (SRHW) on the morning of June 2 after they were sickened by an ammonia leak inside the pork processing facility, 1700 Minnesota 60 N.

SRHW issued a press release late that afternoon stating five of those patients were admitted and remain in fair condition in the hospital. The remainder were treated and released.

 The ammonia  leak was reported to local law enforcement at 10:15 a.m. According to a press release issued by Worthington Public Safety Director Mike Cumiskey, the affected workers had already been taken to the plant's health services area as agencies responded to the scene.

Cumiskey said the Worthington Police Department, Nobles County Sheriff's Office, Worthington Fire Department and Worthington Ambulance were dispatched to JBS.

When the call for aid was first sounded, reports said there were six people down inside the plant. Those individuals were experiencing a myriad of symptoms, from lightheadedness to tingling in the feet and legs.

Within five minutes of the initial call, SRHW had issued a disaster alert, putting all departments in the hospital at the ready for responding to multiple patients.

Worthington Fire Chief Rick Von Holdt said more than a dozen firefighters from his department responded to JBS to assist emergency medical personnel with the response.

"We needed some more manpower out there," said Von Holdt. "You suspect the worst with that many people out there. Even with the EMTs, there isn't enough (help) to go around."

Von Holdt added that some of the affected workers -- who exhibited headaches, lightheadedness and some respiratory problems -- were transported to the hospital in the fire department's rescue vehicles.

Some also exhibited tingling in the feet and legs, another common symptom of ammonia exposure.

By 2 that afternoon, JBS company spokesperson Chandler Keys said, "We have not been notified of any serious illness resulting from this."

He also stated that ammonia is used in the plant for refrigeration and freezing operations.

"Ammonia pipes run through the plant," he said, adding that evacuation was limited to the affected area of the processing facility, with operations continuing throughout the remaining departments.

The second ammonia leak incident at JBS took place on Dec. 8. The Worthington Fire Department, Worthington Rescue, three Worthington Ambulances and the local police department responded to a small ammonia leak at 8:30 a.m. 

According to Keys, some contractors were working on the plant's rooftop refrigeration unit when ammonia leaked out and a small amount was sucked into the ventilation system.

Five people working in the area were evacuated and transported to Sanford Regional Hospital Worthington, where they were observed and later released. All were told they could have the remainder of the day off, but three of them returned to work at the plant, Keys said.

Keys said the ammonia  leak was reported by the workers on the roof, and that workers inside the plant had not reported any issues.

Ryan McGaughey

I first joined the Daily Globe in April 2001 as sports editor. I later became the news editor in November 2002, and the managing editor in August 2006. I'm originally from New York State, and am married with two children.

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