SPRINGDALE — A chemical leak at a Tyson Foods chicken plant in Springdale on Monday sent 173 workers to the hospital, some of whom were overcome by chlorine gas fumes at the Berry Street processing facility.
The workers were taken to hospitals by ambulance and Ozark Regional Transit buses, officials said.
Twelve employees were admitted to local hospitals and approximately 131 others were retained for observation and treatment for exposure Monday evening, officials said. The rest were treated and released.
The most serious injuries included three workers who were admitted to intensive care units at Northwest Medical Centers — one in Springdale and two in Bentonville, officials said.
The hospitals said updates will be given early this morning.
“The incident occurred in the food safety process in our fresh foods division, near the chillers,” Tyson Spokesman Gary Mickelson said. “Once the fumes were noticed, the fire department was notified and 300 workers on that side of the building were evacuated. We suspended fresh operations immediately.”
The plant employs 1,200, and there were 600 or so working the first shift Monday.
Chlorine in its gaseous form can be extremely dangerous, even in small doses, said Dr. Tammy Tucker, a primary-care physician at Northwest Medical Center in Springdale.
Chlorine gas enters the system through the eyes and lungs, acting as an acid once it gets inside the body, often burning lung capillaries and mucous membranes, Tucker said.
On Monday, stunned Tyson employees were evacuated to a parking lot, where some wheezed and clutched their chests.
“I felt a high pressure in my lungs, like I was breathing ammonia,” said Maria Lopez, a 55-year-old plant worker.
Mickelson said the leak did not involve ammonia, which is used in refrigeration. “This was an unfortunate incident, and we’re saddened by its impact on our team members,” he added.
Friends and relatives of the plant employees gathered outside the fence of the facility after the evacuation. Franco Ambriz, 43, hoisted a bag of ice over the plant's high fence to his brother on the other side. Ambriz has other relatives who work at the plant.
“They already took my sister and sister-in-law to the hospital,” he said.
Chlorine is routinely used as an anti-microbial agent in the early-processing, rinse stage of poultry processing.
Frank Jones, a poultry consultant, said chlorine gas is released into the water as bubbles, much like water treatment plants across the country sanitize drinking water.
He said the process is effective and safe, with very few incidents industry-wide.
However, in 2006, a 51-year old Tyson worker in Hutchinson, Kan., died from ammonia inhalation, Jones said. In 2004, Tyson’s Berryville plant in Carroll County was evacuated for an ammonia leak, sending seven workers to the hospital, he said.
Mickelson said the company is grateful for the quick action by local emergency crews.
He said Monday’s gas leak did not affect the plant’s other processing operations.
Both the fire department and Tyson Foods tested the air quality in the affected area of the plant and found it to be safe around noon.
Mickelson said second shift production started Monday afternoon as scheduled.
The accident is under investigation, he said.